Londoners Have Become Afraid of Public Transit

Seventy percent of Londoners no longer feel comfortable with the idea of commuting to work via public transport. So says a poll released this week, which also found that 35% of the surveyed U.K. residents said that going back to a traditional office environment would have a negative impact on their mental health.

The poll was compiled by the accountancy and consultancy firm Theta Financial Reporting, which surveyed 2,000 adults online last weekend. It’s a small sample of the city’s workforce, but it lays bare the concerns and anxieties many city-dwellers are feeling as they contemplate a return to pre-pandemic routines.

Right now, London is, with the rest of Britain, tentatively emerging from lockdown. Shops open on June 15, when schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 18 will also start receiving some part-time in-person teaching again. Zoos and safari parks, of all places, are reopening, while socially distanced outdoor gatherings will be allowed for groups of up to six people. As some familiar patterns return, so are fears about crossing paths with contagion. But are those worries underpinned by actual risks in places such as the public transit network?

It’s still too early to provide a definitive answer. Figures for May from Japan and France found no coronavirus clusters emerging on public transit in those countries — although this result could reflect less a total absence of transmissions than the difficulty of linking multiple cases to transmission taking place in a particular vehicle at a specific time. The path the virus has taken in London, however, has created some alarming death rates among the city’s public transit workers: So far, at least 37 Transport for London employees have died from Covid-19, with 28 of those fatalities occurring among bus drivers.

At this stage it’s not possible to confirm precisely when and how these workers were infected, but the government’s initial failure to provide adequate PPE was likely a factor. Bus drivers may have especially high rates of illness because they come into close proximity with passengers on London’s front-boarding buses (and work in some vehicle models that are notorious for their poor ventilation). Across all transit modes on the network, mask-wearing by passengers has been patchy — perhaps understandably so, given that it only becomes compulsory across the U.K. on public transit on June 15.

On London’s trains, ventilation quality varies considerably across the network, as the map in the tweet below clarifies. The surface-level Overground network of trains feature doors that open to above-ground stations, so there is likely a good level of air exchange. London’s four “sub-surface” lines, created by cut-and-cover methods just beneath the path of pre-existing streets, also have airier single cars, plus tunnels wide enough to accommodate full air conditioning systems. Lines on the so-called “Deep Tube”— excavated far below surface level — are another story: Their tunnels are too narrow to be air conditioned, and have generally poor air circulation on platforms too.

This still doesn’t automatically mean London’s public transit poses a high coronavirius transmission risk for passengers. Unlike drivers, riders aren’t seated in the same vehicle for hours on end as a huge volume of potentially infected people file by. Indeed, French and Japanese public health data suggests — without explicitly confirming — that enclosed spaces such as health facilities, offices or bars, where people remain in close contact for hours at a time, often speaking, offer conditions far more conducive to contagion-spreading than vehicles in which people remain only for short periods, observe some social distancing and talk little.

But places such as London’s Tube still feel deeply unsafe for many Londoners, especially those with fresh memories of being packed tightly into rush-hour cars full of commuters every morning. In a sense, the coronavirus anxiety that lingers over public transit use is an extension of the broader disdain that many urbanites have for a mode of travel that (especially in the U.S.) is often dismissed and dirty and unpleasant. Hanging out in a bar might pose a worse risk, but it’s also fun — and drinkers know they can walk out the door at any moment if they feel things are getting too crowded. If you’re deep underground aboard a subway car, it isn’t necessarily easy or swift to remove yourself.

Those crowds are not returning anytime too soon, however. As things stand, regular commuting by public transit remains a distant prospect for many Londoners. As this hard-hit city gears up to resume its pre-pandemic habits, TfL’s action plan for restarting London rests substantially on encouraging people to walk and cycle for as many journeys as possible. As in several European cities, London has made many central streets car-free and created temporary cycle highways. The Tube, by contrast, will only be permitted to carry 10% to 15% of its pre-pandemic capacity during the recovery period.

In pre-pandemic times, half of all journeys in London were carried out by public transit — and roads are already too congested to absorb more cars, even if Londoners all owned private vehicles. In the weeks ahead, a substantial number of people will have to either cycle to work or stay working from home, even if they don’t want to. Those Londoners who remain anxious about commuting on public transit can thus take heart: There’s no room for them now anyway.

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In Japan and France, Riding Transit Looks Surprisingly Safe

Between May 9 and June 3, 150 clusters of new coronavirus cases emerged in France, according to the country’s national public health body. Defined as three cases or more of Covid-19 linked by contact, these clusters occurred largely in the sort of places you might predict they would: healthcare facilities, workplaces and homeless shelters — all sites where people mix in enclosed spaces for long periods of time and, in the case of hospitals, where people who are already infected are likely to congregate.

What was striking however, was the number of clusters associated with public transit: There weren’t any. For almost a month, not a single Covid-19 cluster had emerged on France’s six metro systems, 26 tram and light rail networks or numerous urban bus routes.

Given the enclosed, ill-ventilated nature of subways and buses and the ease with which they can crowd even during lockdown periods, this apparent lack of clustered cases might come as a surprise. But the results from France closely parallel reports from Japan, whose coronavirus containment strategy focused intently on finding these Covid-19 clusters rather than strict lockdowns, social distancing regulations and mass testing. As Science reported when Japan lifted its state of emergency in late May, most infection clusters there were connected to gyms, bars, music clubs and karaoke rooms; none were traced to the country’s famously crowded commuter trains.

So why are France’s and Japan’s transit systems not proving to be the super-spreader sites one might expect? And does this mean that buses and subways are in fact relatively safe?

One reason for the absence of detected clusters on public transit is highly encouraging: Passengers seem to be paying attention to safety guidelines. Riders in both Tokyo and Paris have been wearing masks — a habit long ingrained in Japan anyway — and have been maintaining as much social distance as possible. Observers of Japan’s low transmission rate for public transit have also noted that transit riders there tend to travel in silence — significant since speaking is a very effective disperser of virus-infected aerosol.

Japanese public health campaigns have also placed particular emphasis on the effect that conversation can have in spreading contagion. Experts stress avoiding the “three C’s” — closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact situations, such as close-range conversations. Places where the three C’s overlap pose the most risk — not necessarily just trains full of chatting passengers but also, to take an example cited by Japan’s public health advice, sports changing rooms where players congregate after a game.

By avoiding conversation, Japanese transit users can turn a three-C zone into a less-hazardous two-C one. This is by no means a solely Japanese phenomenon, however. Travelers on French trains and buses don’t necessarily talk that much either, and transit systems are never the chattiest of places (especially in a grim mid-pandemic climate where the risks of close confinement are all too clear).

There are other potential factors at play. Train cars may be enclosed, but they are at least partly ventilated, whether it’s by air conditioning systems, open windows or doors opening at stations. Furthermore, people tend not to stay on trains or buses for very long, and the brevity of exposure to potentially infected people while in transit may help reduce transmission. These conditions may not inspire total confidence, but a combination of masking, limited exposure time and some exchange of air could make conditions safer than those in enclosed places where people are close together and unmasked for hours at a time.

A transit worker stands on a platform near a metro train at Chatelet-Les-Halles metro station station in Paris, (Christophe Morin/Bloomberg)

Still, the widespread fear of public transit persists, since it’s clear that transit systems do indeed spread contagion to the workers who run them. More than 100 coronavirus-linked deaths have hit New York City’s MTA, with subway crews like train operators bearing the brunt of infections. In London, 37 public transit workers — including 28 bus drivers — have died of Covid-19. In a bid to drive down alarming fatality rates, city transit body TfL was obliged to tape off the driver’s section of buses and make passengers enter only from the middle doors. Such measures have also been employed in many other cities where transit workers have died from Covid-19.

It’s possible that the low figures for coronavirus infections connected to transit systems in France and Japan could be mainly reflective of the limited means at our disposal to detect them. “It is easier to detect clusters in places that are already subject to basic or enhanced epidemiological monitoring, such as healthcare facilities, nursing homes or certain companies” Mircea Sofonea, epidemiologist at Montpelier University, told newspaper Le Parisien. “Statistically, it is more complicated to identify three cases [from public transit] together as they do not necessarily have time to emerge in a few hours.”

In other words, if an infected person is discovered following testing in a clinic, shelter or office, it’s relatively simple to trace who they came into contact with within that building and thus draw a path of the virus’s spread. Making connections between that person and anyone they came into contact with in transit would require testers to trace and test, say, everyone who used a certain subway line within a certain time window — a far more difficult task.

With present data it’s thus not possible to rule out the risks of contracting Covid-19 on public transit. But these findings from France and Japan still suggest something encouraging. Rigorous masking, limited conversation, short exposure times and some ventilation appear to dramatically minimize the risk of super-spreader-type conditions on trains and buses. It is possible, although not yet confirmed, that the links that make moving through cities possible are not those cities’ greatest vulnerability.

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A Playbook for Transit Recovery from D.C.

On Saturday, as massive crowds of protesters gathered in the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C.’s Metro system carried nearly 70,000 passengers — its highest one-day ridership total in the past three months. It’s a sign that the nation’s second-largest transit system is coming back to life. But that figure was still just a fraction of an average Saturday in February 2020, before coronavirus arrived.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates 91 rail stations covering 117 miles of track and more than 10,000 bus stops. On a normal pre-pandemic weekday, the system carries about a million people. But as in so many other cities, Covid-19 triggered a dramatic collapse in ridership and service — by the last week of March, rail ridership was down 92%, and bus passenger numbers fell 75%. Nationwide, stay-at-home orders forced public transit systems in many cities to reduce service levels while gutting their budgets. And the road back will be a long one: WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld says he does not expect full service to return until spring 2021.

The agency plans to cautiously bring back rail and bus service in phases, but Wiedefeld remains bullish on transit’s future — and in the future of urban areas served by public transportation. (Metro’s fortunes had been on the upswing before the pandemic arrived: Weekday rail ridership was up 9% over the previous year.) He is now co-chairing a national task force formed by the American Public Transportation Association that will offer U.S. transit systems recommendations on how to safely recover from the pandemic. Bloomberg Radio’s Martin Di Caro talked to Wiedefeld about where D.C.’s transit comeback goes from here.  

Why do you expect it will take a full year to return to full service at WMATA?

First and foremost, I think it is important to understand that over 100 of our employees have come down positive with Covid. Our first priority is to protect our employees. In terms of rail ridership, we are down almost 95% from last year. In the first quarter of last year, we were at 75 million passengers. In this quarter, we are estimating 9 million. That gives you a sense of the scale of what we are dealing with.

What does the shape of D.C.’s transit recovery look like over the next few months?

We have a three-stage plan. We are in the stabilization phase, which we see running through summer until schools come back. Then we enter into what we call managed reentry, when we will almost double our rail service and bring back all the original bus lines that we have shut down. The reality is the public — our customers —will drive when we come back. We obviously have to do everything we can to have the capacity to support them, but at the end of the day, it will be personal decisions that people make to use the system.

How will you balance protecting your workforce and providing enough service for the people who most rely on public transit? Is it a matter of keeping service levels just ahead of demand as you ramp up?

It is doing exactly that. But I think all of us have the same priority, which is to protect our employees. The system doesn’t work without employees. That is our mission. That is our job. We will provide the service when it is safe to do it.

You’re co-chairing APTA’s task force on resurrecting transit service. What are you hearing from other transit officials across the country? Are there places you are looking at as models around the globe?

We are looking at everything from cleaning standards to communication plans to different policies and protocols. We are due by the end of the summer to have that report done, but we will be setting up a portal that provides information so [transit systems] can start immediately looking into alternatives they may want to try.

I think when we look around the globe we have to think about how those concepts would work in our society. Something that is done in China may be different than what we can do in Washington, D.C., for instance. Or in Moscow — I have been looking at a number of things in Moscow, like how the [Moscow Metro] is metering passengers.

Are you concerned it could be years before some people feel comfortable on a crowded train or bus?

People live in urban areas because they want to be around people, for a lot of reasons — the social interaction, the amenities that an urban environment provides. Transit is part of that. I don’t see any of that changing. If you look back through history as a nation and from a global perspective, there are a lot of things that we go through, but at the end of the day we as a society have chosen to do this. We [public transit] will be part of that in the future.

American cities have a rare opportunity now to reimagine their street grids with so few cars on the road. What will be transit’s role in urban areas during the recovery?

One of the things [WMATA] has been looking at with our local communities is providing exclusive bus lanes, which allows us to move buses quicker. If you can turn those buses around much quicker, you can keep social distancing [for passengers] in place.  There is an opportunity now because of the traffic reductions. Is there an opportunity to replace that [with bus lanes] rather than fill it back up with traffic?

It’s common to hear people say the pandemic is the death knell for movie theaters or gyms. Is the pandemic the death knell for public transit?

By no means. I was the head of BWI [Baltimore-Washington International Airport] after 9/11, and if you go back to those headlines we were talking about the same things, like aviation would take decades to come back. Within a year we were building a 26-gate expansion of the terminal building for Southwest Airlines.

The reality is things will change. Public transit is critical to major urban environments. I am certain it will come back, and it will probably come back stronger because there are opportunities for us to learn and things we can do better. When that occurs is obviously anyone’s prediction but I have total confidence it will come back.

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When Trump Tweets About Transit

On Thursday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump stepped away from feuding with Twitter to use the social media platform for an uncharacteristic purpose: announcing more than $760 million in federal funding for 10 public transit projects around the country.

“I’m excited to commit $100M to funding to @MiamiDadeCounty, FL in @USDOT funding to connect fast-growing communities through state-of-the-art transit service!” Trump wrote in one of a series of 10 tweets on May 28 that announced each area’s award separately. “Fast, safe, and beautiful infrastructure!”

The Miami award covers a bus rapid transit line in the South Dade area. Trump also committed to funding BRT segments in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Albany, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and Ogden, Utah. Light rail links in Portland and Phoenix also got an award announcement via tweet, as did a commuter rail line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana.

Leaders in several of these communities welcomed the announcements, which appeared to be a high-profile gesture of White House support for public transportation at a time when transit agencies have been hard hit by coronavirus-related ridership and revenue challenges. “It will bring much needed transit relief to communities ranging from Florida City to Kendall, & we hope to have it running in the next couple of years,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote on Twitter on Thursday. In the Phoenix area, Valley Metro spokesperson Madeline Phipps said that “the federal government’s continued support of public transportation ensures that a multi-modal transportation network in Maricopa County is viable for future generations and can support the million more people expected in this region in the years to come.”

But the news did not exactly come as a surprise: All these transit projects were rated highly by the Federal Transit Administration on a list of capital investment grant projects, the funding for which is largely pre-approved by Congress. This would generally mean their funding was all but assured, said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at Eno Center for Transportation. In other words, the tweets amount to an unusual announcement of a normal transaction by a functioning federal agency. Barring some unexpected problem, the cities and counties receiving these grants expected and have planned on receiving this federal support, after a multi-year process of competing for it.

“All that is happening is the administration is moving money that has already been appropriated for the CIG program from the ‘unallocated’ category to the ‘allocated’ category, which happens all the time, throughout the year,” said Davis.

Final steps, such as negotiating grant agreements and payment schedules, still await and may still take months. “Even with the announcement, the money is not technically in their accounts yet,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Center.

A number of transportation policy experts said that they viewed the Trump tweets more as political theater than a sign of meaningful infrastructure progress: The announcements came on the same day that the president acknowledged a grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic’s death toll, which recently crossed 100,000. “He’s just trying to look like he’s doing something,” said Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress.

The political demography of many of the states receiving funds also caught some attention, with a few Twitter users calling the announcements “swing state bribery” and “pork barrel spending.” But while many of the grantees may sit in Republican-leaning states, they will also serve solidly blue cities. The political constituency for public transit in general leans heavily Democratic, while many GOP-aligned groups are known for their aversion to the concept. For example, a failed attempt to halt Phoenix’s light rail expansion in 2019 was funded in part by the conservative Arizona Free Enterprise Club and a city councilmember who is a strong supporter of the president.

Trump’s announcement comes after another flurry of FTA awards in February. That represented a departure from years of unusual delays on FTA grants under the Trump administration. Other projects that are due funding are still waiting for it, according to the think tank Transportation For America.

Meanwhile, roads and highways have received a much larger share of annual transportation spending since President Barack Obama left office. And Trump has consistently tried to cut overall funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation since he entered office.

“Watch what they do, not what they tweet,” said David Bragdon, the executive director of the think tank TransitCenter. “His regime has been relentlessly opposed to transit but Congress appropriates money for it over his objections.”

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How to Safely Travel on Mass Transit During Coronavirus

As lockdowns start to ease, trains, buses and planes are becoming an even greater focus of anxiety, with larger numbers of people considering when and how to resume travel. Larger crowds could pose a greater risk to both essential workers who may have been using transit all along, and the others who may start to join them. What factors most affect your risk of catching Covid-19 while using mass transit?  CityLab talked to several experts about both the dangers and necessary precautions.

Keep your distance – and watch your mouth

When it comes to staying safe on mass transit, one piece of advice outweighs any other: Do whatever you can to stay at a safe distance from other people. The same six-feet rule applies as elsewhere, and the safest form of transit is always the one that makes this easiest. Dr. Simon Clark, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Reading, cautions against focusing too narrowly on balancing one mode against another.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “With public transport, it’s an aluminum can that people are packed into, whatever the mode. The key question is: How densely are people packed in together? That’s basically it. The longer they are exposed to one another, the greater the risk. The more densely packed in they are, the greater the risk. It doesn’t particularly matter if you are in a bus or a train.”

These are also the key considerations for airplanes, says Dr. Julian Tang, a professor in the Department of Respiratory Sciences at the University of Leicester, where it is distance rather than air cleaning that is the key issue:

“Airplanes have good ventilation systems but if you’re sitting side-by-side next to a stranger within talking distance, then that may not leave time for the ventilation in the roof and the walls of the plane to change the air between you. That means local airborne transmission will not necessarily be prevented.”

In keeping your distance, it isn’t just evidently ill-looking people you need to be wary of. The contagion risk from sitting or standing too close to people goes beyond the simple danger of being coughed on, says Tang. “If you talk, you produce aerosol. If you talk louder, you produce more, so the loud-talking guys on the train are possibly the worst spreaders of the virus. Because when you cough or sneeze you usually look away or cough into your sleeve.”

Wearing masks can do much to mitigate the risk of this kind of proximity, says Tang. “Masks are better at containing virus exhaled by the wearer. If everyone wears masks, protection is two-way, containing your own virus and protecting you from others’ exhaled virus. If there is little or no ventilation present, the masks are even more effective, as virus will start to build up in the air, so distancing alone is not effective if the virus is distributed throughout the carriage.”

Ventilation could matter — but maybe not how you think

If proximity is still the overwhelming issue, how much does the ventilation on a train or bus matter? It depends on the type of ventilation you’re taking about: Being in a vehicle with poor ventilation that doesn’t adequately circulate infected air probably makes a difference. But the idea that a ventilation system could play a perverse role by spreading the virus has far less support.

Worries about spread through ventilation systems were sparked by a study tracing an outbreak of Covid-19 in a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, that suggested that air conditioning could have played a role in spreading contagion. While the study concluded that infection in the restaurant did indeed follow the direction of the air conditioning’s flow, experts have suggested that this single reported case is a freak outlier and that the actual cause was more likely the proximity of the people in the room.

“This virus is not like TB, where people could get ill in two separate places if they have a ventilation link,” says Dr. Lena Ciric, a microbiologist at University College London. “Hospitals, which are the places most on top of this at the moment, are not so worried about ventilation systems.” Ciric notes that while there have been traces of the virus found in hospital ventilation systems, they are not necessarily able to cause infection.

But while the likelihood of a vehicle’s ventilation system actively spreading the virus seems low-to-nonexistent, the risk of poor ventilation is considered higher. This is the reason why the outdoors is considered safer than indoors, and why confined spaces are considered higher-risk areas.

“Basically, the packed subways of Tokyo, London and New York are in the worst possible situation for both aerosol and close contact transmission,” Tang says. “The London Underground is old, the trains are very narrow and the carriages are closed at each end so that you can’t walk through. That reduces the volume [of air in the space] in there that can reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants.” Other transit systems, however, perform better.

“If you look at the Hong Kong and Singapore systems, they have fantastic air conditioning,” adds Tang. “They have vents going to the outside so they have fresh air coming in cool, and inside air filtered, hopefully allowing greater removal of contaminants, including viruses.”

While these comments might alarm transit users, Tang nonetheless underlines that being in close proximity with someone is the key risk, a risk that no ventilation system can eradicate.

“[Fully preventative] ventilation would need to be so powerful, that it pulls away the air straight away when it comes out of your mouth. You might get these conditions outside on a very windy day when you’re trying to talk to your neighbor, and you’ll feel it because you can’t hear anything. There’s no ventilation system like that in an indoor area. You can’t maintain it because it’s too powerful and impractical.”

Clark agrees, conceding an advantage for vehicles that are partially open air.

“Certainly, if you’re in a tightly packed trolley that is fully open, there would be a lower risk — concern about ventilation is not a red herring — but otherwise it is difficult to make broad statements about a particular mode of transport because there are so many different systems at play.”

In other words, while good ventilation, and larger, more open carriages might moderate the risk of becoming infected by someone standing close to you, no indoor air conditioning can ever be as effective at protecting you as taking a step or two back.

It’s prudent to be careful of surfaces, too

What you touch during travel may also be important, although exactly how important is not a matter of consensus among the experts CityLab talked to. Tang notes that there is a lack of evidence proving coronavirus transmission from people touching their faces with virus-contaminated hands, while Clark and Ciric emphasized that it is nonetheless a very good idea to take precautions given the high-exposure surfaces like turnstiles and subway poles in transit systems. They advise regularly using hand sanitizer, considering wearing gloves and avoiding unnecessary contact with surfaces.

The best precautions

The potential areas of risk outlined here are by no means limited to mass transit. People occupying any kind of crowded, or ill-ventilated spaces, especially for longer periods of time, would be just as vulnerable to infection — meaning that trains or buses are not inherently less safe than, say, offices or stores.

The primary difference with mass transit is that you may face a greater challenge maintaining enough distance from others. Even if you get on a relatively empty train, you may find that a crowd enters at a subsequent stop. So what can you do if you still have to ride? The advice here will sound familiar: Wear a mask, keep your distance and don’t touch your face.

Tang recommends staying in a place that offers good air flow: “If I have to take a train,” he says, “I personally choose to sit in a place close to the door, as there is a more regular exchange of air there.”  Ciric, meanwhile, advises wearing some protective gear, and avoiding unnecessary trips altogether. And if there is a portion of your trip that you can take outside by walking or biking, Ciric suggests doing that rather than getting on multiple trains or buses in the course of your journey.

“If I had to get into London by public transport right now, I’d probably avoid getting the bus [the short distance] to my local station. Once there, I’d definitely wait for a train that’s less busy, and I’d think about changing hours to miss the rush. I’d wear a mask and maybe wear gloves while on the train, and when I got to my destination, I’d give my hands a really good clean.”

Depending where you live, some of these precautions may be partially baked into city policies. Milan, for example, plans to stagger the times of some functions like schools and stores in the hope of reducing rush-hour crowds. Many places are adding more bike lanes and closing streets to cars so more people have the option to walk. And New York has ordered rider capacity limits on trains to reduce crowding. Many transit authorities are also giving passengers visual guidelines to maintain social distancing, requiring masks, and reducing contact between passengers and drivers by making public transit free.

And while only a few airlines — notably Air India for repatriation flights — have gone as far as leaving middle seats empty to facilitate social distancing, Airbus is now recommending that airplanes start their ventilation systems before passengers board, so that air exchange is already up and running by the time they enter the craft.

It’s sensible to make yourself as aware as possible of the safety measures adopted by your transit provider — safety measures that may still change in the near future, as transit authorities introduce new measures. And if you can avoid traveling at peak times, you’ll not only be helping yourself. You could be making more space for essential workers, who don’t have the luxury of opting for a less-crowded time.

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A NYC Councilmember’s Plan to Save Public Transit

The New York City subway has been a convenient target for pandemic blame, demonized as a vector of disease that spread the coronavirus poison through the veins of the city. The evidence for this theory is weak and largely advanced by opponents of mass transit and urban density. But it has plenty of New Yorkers worried.   

As the city begins to contemplate when and how to reopen, many New Yorkers are understandably very hesitant to get back on the subway, where we typically stand uncomfortably close to fellow riders from every corner of the city. Unlike the rest of the country, most New Yorkers don’t own cars, and only 27% use them to commute. Some city residents are now contemplating — often reluctantly — purchasing a car to get to work. But there’s just no way New York City can function with many more people driving to work.

The critics’ image has one thing right: Mass transit is the circulatory system of our city. If it’s not healthy, the patient won’t survive. The city’s growth, development, economy, and psyche are built around the subways. Transit is how we get to work, to school, to our friends, to Broadway, to the beach. We simply won’t be able to reopen our city’s economy without it.

The fundamental necessity of transit is being demonstrated right now. Even with ridership down sharply — over 80% on the subways, 70% on the buses — roughly 1 million public transit trips are still being made every day as nurses, grocery clerks, building service staff, and other essential workers take subways and buses to their jobs, often traveling more than 45 minutes in each direction. We owe it to them to make sure the system keeps working.

But not just to them. The subway is also one of the few public systems shared by New Yorkers across lines of race and class, where janitors and home health-aides ride side-by-side with bankers and lawyers. That’s what makes it so quintessentially New York, and why it’s always managed to pull together enough public support to survive past crises.

New York’s MTA was already facing dire financial and operational straits before the Covid-19 crisis. Now expenses have spiked as fare revenue has collapsed. Operating the system with sufficient social distancing and cleaning is a gargantuan task.    

But there’s no choice. For us to start coming back to life in the short term, and to have a vibrant, diverse, and sustainable future for years to come, we need to keep New York’s circulatory system pumping.

Here’s how we can do it.

Manage commuting demand

The first principle must be to reduce crowding on the subways, so they can function safely for those who need them. That means clear rules and incentives for businesses with substantial commuting workforces to continue telework, to shift employees to every-other-day schedules, and to utilize time-altered shifts to reduce peak demand. The city and state government should require employers to develop and implement transit management plans and help to coordinate them.  

We’ll need to do even more to reduce traffic demand, since it won’t work to have returning workers flood the city with cars. Traffic engineer Sam Schwartz has laid out a smart plan to place a surcharge for solo drivers on the three currently-free East River Bridges, higher during peak hours, to ease traffic and raise revenue for other parts of this plan. That’s a good bridge toward comprehensive congestion pricing, which the state legislature voted to adopt last year, and which we must not delay.

A cleaner, safer subway

Daily cleaning of the entire subway system is a necessity, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to implement overnight closures is a reasonable accommodation to make it possible.

That means a commitment to existing MTA workers — especially the cleaners, who are some of the lowest-paid — and recruiting many more. Almost 100 transit workers have now died from coronavirus. Transit workers must all be well equipped with protective gear, with special caution taken for workers who come into regular contact with the public. After a bad start, conditions have improved, with more PPE available; transit workers who were sick or stayed home as a precaution are coming back to work. Like other front-line workers, MTA workers should receive bonus pay, especially the lowest-paid ones.

Obviously the MTA should require all riders to wear masks, stay six feet apart, and not touch subway or bus surfaces unnecessarily. That will require quickly scaling up of a Public Health Corps to help enforce the rules, provide hand sanitizer, and conduct public health education.

Because the subway serves as shelter for many hundreds of homeless New Yorkers, addressing homelessness is also a necessary element of the transit plan. Governor Cuomo called cars full of homeless New Yorkers “disgusting,” as though they could be disinfected from the system. A more humane and practical solution is housing homeless New Yorkers in hotels or other safe locations (the CDC has cautioned against congregate shelters, and many homeless New Yorkers understandably don’t want to go to them). Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted the idea, even though FEMA will pay for the empty hotel rooms.

Open street space for buses and bikes

One silver lining to the dark Covid-19 cloud: With traffic light, buses are providing unprecedentedly good service. To keep it that way, the MTA and DOT must work together to roll out an emergency network of physically separated bus lanes, prioritizing busy routes to help reduce crowding. Essential workers were 30% of bus riders before the crisis, and a much higher percentage now. We owe it to them to keep buses moving when vehicular traffic resumes.

We should also support those who decide to bike instead of taking transit or driving to work. The DOT should build on existing plans to rapidly implement a network of bike lanes connecting to key destinations and institutions, as so many other cities around the globe have been doing.

The city of Paris, for example, is setting an example we should follow: They are rapidly implementing emergency bus and bike lanes known as “coronapistes” to give people more commuting options. And Mayor Anne Hidalgo has made clear the transformation will be for the long term.

Fight for federal funding

All this is going to cost a lot of money. It’s estimated that the MTA needs an additional $4 billion dollars just to keep operating through the end of 2020. In the longer term, congestion pricing is critical to the survival of mass transit in New York City. But in the short term, we need to stop getting short-changed by the federal government. Although New York’s MTA carries 39% of all US transit riders, it received only 14% of CARES transit funding.

Amid all the grief and stress of this crisis, one small bright spot has been experiencing a glimpse of what this city can look and feel like when it’s not choked with cars.

In recent weeks many New Yorkers have noted the ability to see and hear more birds, and see stars in the night sky. This is not just about aesthetics or lifestyle preferences. Air quality throughout the city has measurably improved. There’s good evidence that air pollution disproportionately causes negative health impacts in low-income communities of color, and is correlated with higher death rates from Covid-19.

Functional subways and buses, more commuting options, reduced traffic, and cleaner air are the only way we’ll be able to open our city back up safely, and to manage the next phase of this crisis. And they don’t seem like a bad idea, even after that.

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Who Will Ride Transit After Coronavirus?

In 1918, streetcars were the top urban transportation mode in the United States. And they were packed: Americans made about 140 trips per capita, about 15 billion trips total, that year.

Then came the Spanish flu. As influenza ripped through cities, crowded systems were forced to make health-centric changes, including requiring masks on passengers, limiting streetcar capacity, and staggering commute hours to keep riders distanced. Some vehicles were briefly decommissioned due to a shortage of operators. Still, the popularity of mass transit did not suffer dramatically in the succeeding years — at least not until the Great Depression put a quarter of the country out of work and, later, when the private automobile began to displace it.

What about today? Coronavirus has walloped bus and rail networks. The top transit systems in the U.S. have seen 70% to 90% ridership losses as commuters have been laid off, worked from home, or opted for other means of travel since March. With few passengers, daunting finances, sick operators, and a heightened imperative to sanitize, agencies have dramatically scaled back service. San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Agency has ceased rail operations and eliminated nearly 70% of its bus network. In Washington, D.C., buses are serving just 26 “lifeline” routes and Metro trains are running on Saturday schedules. The New York subway has stopped running 24 hours a day for the first time in 115 years.

Transit’s current situation is partly a reflection of the overall travel freeze on driving, flying, and all other modes during stay-at-home orders in major cities. But when lockdowns ease, there are reasons that transit commuters in particular may not return in force.

First, bus and rail ridership tends to be more sensitive to  economic changes than other modes, and the financial effects of coronavirus are poised to stretch long into the future, said Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Second, some proportion of would-be passengers are likely to continue to work remotely, while others may change their commute patterns to driving or biking. “We know that people will be scared to use public transportation from a health perspective,” said Ahmed El-Geneidy, a professor of urban planning at McGill University who has studied transit ridership. Based on what’s happening in China, a post-pandemic car sales boom may be in the offing.  

Third, assuming rider demand and revenue remain low, transit agencies may have to keep service cuts even after lockdowns lift, despite the fact that more vehicles, not fewer, are needed to allow for social distancing. Academic literature shows that such cuts themselves can be rider-deterrents. “There’s an elasticity that shows if you cut service by 10%, you can generally expect ridership goes down 3-6%,” said Greg Erhardt, a civil engineering professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in travel behavior and transportation planning.

A final and pernicious factor is that 2020 was primed to be the sixth consecutive year of what Taylor calls a “disturbing trend”: U.S. transit ridership has been in decline since 2014, even as transit agencies have added service on the whole. Much of that new service has come in light-rail extensions and some bus-rapid transit lines usually designed to attract “discretionary riders,” or people who can afford to choose between driving and transit, and often financed through sales tax measures.

Explanations for ridership’s downward slide during these years abound. Cheap gas and easy credit for auto loans increased the appeal of car use, while service quality deteriorated on the older parts of transit systems. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft emerged, and a housing affordability crisis pushed many people outside the range of reliable transit.  

In Southern California, Taylor and his colleagues have found that the largest drops in ridership have come from groups that were traditionally the heaviest, most economically dependent users of transit. Lower-income immigrants in particular have abandoned buses as car ownership among those communities has increased. While the share of discretionary riders has increased slightly, thanks to increased investment into rail and rapid bus service geared toward more affluent commuters, “their added trips are still overwhelmed by lost trips from others,” Taylor said.

Who will ride in the wake of coronavirus? Passengers will inevitably return in dense cities with extensive systems, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where transit is critical for thriving urban economies to function, Taylor said. But the best indication of the future face of transit may be the people on board right now. And there are still a lot of them: By the end of March, New York City subway ridership cratered to 10% of its usual five million weekday trips, but that still meant it was providing more than 500,000 trips. The 65% ridership drop on L.A.’s Metro buses, reported in mid-April, still equates to 500,000 daily boardings.

It isn’t clear how many of these trips were made by essential workers, but analyses based on census data show that more than 30% of normal transit riders have jobs that have been deemed pandemic-critical. Individuals riding to work right now are also less likely to have the option to drive, and they are more likely to be people of color, as evidenced in photos of crowded subways and buses that have sparked online outrage in recent weeks. Transit, an urban mobility navigation app, has found that 68% of the people using it to plan bus and metro trips right now are women, most of them black and Latinx.

There is one grim new potential reservoir of future transit riders, Taylor said: lower-income households that have bought vehicles in the last few years. Their car-owning status could be vulnerable to an economic downturn.

These circumstances point to a potential shift in the way transit is used, viewed, and potentially funded, experts said. Traditionally, a successful transit system is one with a lot of riders, with packed buses and cars and a large share of revenue derived from passenger fares. But in a world where social distancing means life or death, and a 40-foot bus has an eight-passenger capacity limit, emphasizing ridership and fare recovery as the metrics of success may no longer make sense. Yet the nurses, orderlies, grocery store workers and pharmacists boarding today are proof that transit itself is a critical social institution. “Transit agencies should be switching their brains to serving those riders,” said El-Geneidy. “We have to accept that public transport is an essential service. We can’t think about it as a for-profit organization that can make money from ridership.”

That could create a stronger demand for federal funding for transit, instead of local agencies continuing rely on fares and tax measures tied to projects like light-rail expansions sold to affluent voters with the promise of congestion relief. For Taylor, that may mean something like a reality check for transit-boosters.

“For many years we have a lot of aspirations for transit: We want it to beat traffic, fight climate change, and revitalize communities,” he said. “But the two things it has demonstrably done in last half century is provide mobility for those without — whether that’s due to age, income, or disability — and allow highly agglomerated places function. My educated guess is that we will see the rise of transit as a social service.”

If that sounds like giving up on transit, look to the cities that are using the crisis as a moment to revamp their systems with social equity as a priority. El-Geneidy and Erhardt both pointed to San Francisco as a leader, where the SFMTA redesigned bus service virtually overnight in early April to focus on just a few dozen routes mostly serving commutes into the city’s downtown core and major hospitals. About 100,000 people are still riding every day.

Jeffrey Tumlin, the executive director of the SFMTA, acknowledged that not all of the 100-plus routes lost to coronavirus are necessarily going to return. But he strikes an optimistic tone: He believes that a transit network that focuses more narrowly on frequent, more reliable service along fewer routes may serve the city better in the end. While the streets are still empty, the SFMTA hopes to rethink its approach to transportation writ large. Facing a sharp rise in vehicle traffic and fatalities, and seeking to slash carbon emissions, the city had already moved to ban private vehicles on its central downtown corridor, and has spent the past year studying congestion pricing.

With little vehicle traffic, “we’re in an extraordinary period of time to rethink how we manage our streets,” Tumlin said in an interview in April. “We have to set the city up not only for a stronger recovery, but also for a more urban, humane economy.”

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How Public Transit Agencies are Responding to COVID-19 & Official Recommendations

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) have all released recommendations to help agencies during the COVID-19 outbreak. Agencies have had to act fast to protect riders and staff, and make difficult decisions to adapt to evolving conditions.

Here, we present APTA, CUTA, and UITP’s recommendations and a window into what they look like in practice, by looking at survey results from Transit, which received information from more than 60 transit agencies on what policies they are putting in place to safely ride out the pandemic

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How U.S. Public Transit Can Survive Coronavirus

Public transportation has been in a state of crisis since the coronavirus pandemic began. Ridership in major cities in the U.S., Europe and China is down by 50-90% from pre-crisis levels. Local taxes used to subsidize systems in America, such as sales taxes, have taken a big hit as well. Transit operators are running out of money quickly. While the federal government has allocated $25 billion in emergency aid to help cover operational losses, the next six months will still present an enormous financial challenge to local agencies as they struggle to attract riders back onto buses and subways and continue capital projects.

As urban research scholars specializing in public transit costs, we worry that this dynamic could result in damaging decision-making. Historically, it has been during times of crisis that agencies have deferred maintenance, cut service and canceled expansion projects. It’s these choices, made under extreme duress, that have crippled American transit agencies before.

But there is a way forward. We offer these pathways for saving transit, immediately and into the future.

What to do now

For the duration of the pandemic, agencies need money to continue running service, and to keep operators and passengers safe. Spending priorities need to shift and mimic the best practices used in cities that keep their public spaces clean and their infection rates low. U.S. transit agencies should do all of the following interventions:

  • Hire more cleaners to sanitize vehicles and stations frequently. Alex Garcia, an American urbanist researcher living in Taipei, told us that in the event of an outbreak, that city plans to disinfect all of its stations daily, the equipment that passengers touch every four hours, and trains every two hours if there is even a suspected case traveling by train. Seoul also uses drones to sprinkle disinfectant on hard-to-reach elevated places.
  • Use noninvasive handheld or infrared thermometers to scan all passengers’ temperature — a technique that is very common outside stores and offices in Asian cities and is now being employed to screen transit users in Taipei.
  • Provide front-line workers with masks, gloves, and other protective equipment, especially those tasked with cleaning the system. New York City Transit cleaners have had to work without any PPE, which may have contributed to the elevated death rates among them.
  • Require all passengers to cover their faces, and clearly communicate what is and is not allowed. Reusable cloth masks should be acceptable.
  • Engage in small-scale capital projects to reduce infection spread, such as coating metal poles on trains with copper, which renders viruses inactive. (One Taipei-based food chain has so coated its doorknobs.)
  • For the fast-growing number of operators who have been exposed to the virus already, ensure that they have the job protections and medical care that they require.

On the operations front, agencies should also adjust schedules and consider new kinds of routes and vehicles that serve hospitals, testing centers, industrial clusters and grocery stores rather than office buildings and schools. In San Francisco, the SFMTA dramatically reduced the scope of its network by slashing 72 of 89 routes. Temporary cuts allow transit agencies to focus their workforce and resources into the routes that serve essential workers and medical centers while also maintaining enough service to permit social distancing onboard the bus.

What to plan over the next year

As the economy begins to recover from the pandemic, transit agencies will have to rebuild ridership. This will be a difficult task: Historically, transit ridership and employment have been intertwined. With unemployment skyrocketing, we expect transit ridership to rebound slowly.

To ensure ridership can scale up when service eventually returns to pre-crisis levels, transit agencies and local departments of transportation should develop plans to increase the throughput of transit vehicles on congested streets or antiquated infrastructure. Strategies for doing so include dedicating lanes to buses, giving buses priority at signalized intersections, enacting congestion pricing, implementing parking restrictions, funding capital projects to fix chronic chokepoints and investing in new technologies that enhance transit operations.  

As agencies take a beat to figure out how they will continue to operate service beyond April, this is the perfect time for capital construction teams to consider alternatives that will reduce their construction costs and speed up timelines for future lines. The Beverly Hills City Council recently approved the full closure of a three-block stretch of Wilshire Boulevard to expedite construction on the Purple Line extension, which is projected to shave as much as six months off of the construction schedule. While rushing this work comes with its own set of health risks, if construction can continue in a safe manner, agencies should take advantage of stay-at-home orders and push for more aggressive construction timelines.

The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis offers a lesson in what transit agencies should not do. Many agencies cut service during the ensuing recession. When we examined the change in service hours for buses in New York between 2008 and 2018, we observed that service hours had been slashed by nearly 20%, even as the unemployment rate fell from 2011-19, a time when bus service should have increased; citywide ridership fell by 22% between the same period. While this is merely a correlation — service was cut, ridership fell — there is evidence of causation in the transportation literature.

That’s why short-term cuts deployed to save transit agencies money during a crisis should not become permanent once the crisis is over. Transit agency after transit agency made this same mistake after 2008 and saw ridership decline year after year, except Seattle, which increased service and experienced ridership gains.

Big, structural change is needed

Finally, in the long run, the federal government should work with states to relax local land-use restrictions and nurture a more beneficial transportation-land-use connection. Transit thrives when it is surrounded by a certain level of population density and mix of land uses; because American cities are largely defined by low-density development, many cities with fairly expansive subway and light-rail networks have flagging ridership. If land-use regulations around train stations allowed a greater mix of mid- and high-rise buildings, they’ll attract higher ridership than if they continue to be flanked by single-family houses (as in much of California) or parking lots (as in many newer American light rail networks).

Transit agencies need the funding they are about to receive, but it will hardly solve all of their problems. For starters, the way the federal government apportions money to transit agencies often comes in the form of competitive grants for capital projects, such as a new light-rail or the extension of a legacy subway network. This $25 billion emergency infusion, however, is exclusively for operational costs, the provision of service. While we hope that Covid-19 is a blip on the radar, this shift in funding priorities is an extremely encouraging development that we hope takes shape in future programs that fund state-of-good-repair maintenance.

As transit agencies struggle to find their footing in an uncertain future with dramatically less revenue from the usual sources, it’s time to rethink how transit agencies operate and are funded. If agencies reassess their priorities and push forward ambitious plans to reorient cities around their systems, with the assistance of the federal government, buses and subways can thrive when the country is ready to return to regular service.

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How Public Transit Agencies are Responding to COVID-19 & Official Recommendations

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) have all released recommendations to help agencies during the COVID-19 outbreak. Agencies have had to act fast to protect riders and staff, and make difficult decisions to adapt to evolving conditions.

Here, we present APTA, CUTA, and UITP’s recommendations and a window into what they look like in practice, by looking at survey results from Transit, which received information from more than 60 transit agencies on what policies they are putting in place to safely ride out the pandemic

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