Subway and other mass transit use is dramatically down since New York first hit PAUSE to slow the spread of COVID-19. In March, subway ridership was estimated to be down around 90% from normal levels, and in September, it was hovering around 60-70% lower than pre-pandemic times. The numbers suggest that many New Yorkers still don’t feel comfortable returning to mass transit just yet—but according to a new study, the risks of taking the subway right now may have more to do with perception than reality.
The study, which was commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association, found that there is no direct correlation between public transit use and COVID-19 spread, either worldwide or in New York City. As long as people wear masks, and trains and buses are well-ventilated, the authors of the study concluded public transit is relatively safe.
In many cases, virus spread went down even as riders gradually began returning to the transit system. Researchers found that in the city, there were about 150 million subway and bus rides between June 1st and August 18th, but the positive rate of infection “dropped 70 percent, from 3.3% down to 1.0%, and cases went from over 600 per day to around 250 over the same period.”
“In the very beginning, people were blaming transit with absolutely no backup, with just looking at New York City becoming the epicenter of the outbreak back in March and April,” said Sam Schwartz, better known as “Gridlock Sam,” the former NYC Traffic Commissioner whose transit-consulting firm made the report. He compared it to a statistics professor testing first year students by showing correlation between eating ice cream and drowning; they both may peak during summertime, but that doesn’t mean eating ice cream leads to drowning.
Instead, the myth around subway usage and the spread of the virus has become what he calls a factoid, “something that is untrue but gets repeated time and time again. It seems to be plausible, it fits in with people’s thinking,” he told Gothamist. “It also is very discriminatory, and I believe it was stated by many people who don’t ride the subway system, who don’t ride public transit.”
Looking around the rest of the country and world, including Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong, he found example after example of places with a lack of correlation; they found that case rates are tied primarily to local community spread, rather than correlated to public transit ridership rates. The U.S. cities with the highest infection rates—like Gallup, New Mexico, which had 58.2 cases per 1,000—have little transit usage. The study notes, “it appears that what you do at the end of a trip affects the probability of contracting the virus far more than the mode of travel.”
Schwartz argues that another reason for the assumption about spread in NYC in particular has to do with essential workers and their reliance on public transit: “Our essential workers travel by transit overwhelmingly,” he said. “The people we relied on to save us, to feed us, to take care of our every need ride transit. And they were getting sick at a higher rate, whether they traveled by transit or by car. So immediately we blamed transit, and then discriminated against people.”
Back in May, the New York Stock Exchange partially reopened but said no one who rides mass transit could come to the trading floor (they later rescinded that). The CDC recommended at various points during the crisis that employers should pay workers to drive alone.
“Well, lower income workers can’t drive alone, they don’t have cars,” said Schwartz. “Even in New York City the income disparity between car owners and non-car owners is over $45K a year in income. So it’s a narrative that fits a group of people that are short-sighted, that just saw an outbreak occur in New York City and came to a false conclusion that scientists have now shown is not the case.”
Studies from across the world have shown that there is a definite correlation between outbreaks and bars, indoor restaurants, weddings, and houses of worship. So what’s different about mass transit? This study posits that one major factor may be that people generally don’t talk on mass transit, while there is a lot of that (and singing) in those other scenarios. In addition, transit trips are “usually short in duration, and the vehicles often have high rates of ventilation, make frequents stops and, in some cases, have open windows.”
The MTA, which has spent millions to thoroughly clean subway cars and reassure straphangers that using the subway is okay, said the report backed up their own findings. “This report adds to the growing body of evidence that mass transit is safe with the proper public health safeguards in place,” said Abbey Collins, spokesperson for the MTA. “In fact, New York has served as a national model with transit ridership increasing as the infection rate declined. The MTA will continue to take every possible action to protect our customers and employees and combat the spread of COVID-19.”
Earlier this month, the MTA announced that subway and bus riders who refuse to wear a mask while taking public transit will now be subject to a $50 fine, as part of a crackdown aimed at achieving “universal mask compliance.” Since that began on September 14th, the MTA says that MTA officers have asked 2,342 customers to make adjustments to the masks they already were wearing so that they were covering both nose and mouth, distributed 2,646 masks to those who didn’t have them, and issued six summonses.
Schwartz agrees that mask compliance and other safety measures are still paramount in the subways. “When I took the 1 train today, there were two younger people not wearing masks. It bothered me, and I moved as far away from them as I could get,” he said. “There’s always going to be a stumbling block unless we can get close to 100% compliance. I’ve done some surveys that show we’re in the 90% range of mask-wearing, which is very good, but we have to get 100%. So yes, the city, the police, the MTA and others need to get that message across.”
According to Schwartz’s research, truck traffic in NYC is already back at 100% of pre-pandemic levels, with car traffic back around 90% — another reason he encourages people to return to mass transit rather than rely on cars. “I’m in my 70s, I do have asthma, I wear a second mask over my first mask, so I’m being extra cautious,” he said. “But I am not hesitant to take the subway.”