Should you worry about your risk of exposure to COVID-19 while riding public transit?
As commuters begin returning to their offices and considering their commute options, many are expressing concerns about riding transit for fear of contracting the coronavirus. If you find yourself second guessing transit as a commute option, you may benefit from using this model on National Geographic’s website to determine your risk of infection.
You may be surprised by how low the risk can be relative to most other activities in enclosed areas. The model is consistent with what cities across the globe are finding with transit.
Why is transit a relatively safe option?
Major public transit subway systems in Japan, New York City, Philadelphia, Paris, and Washington, DC all fully ventilate the air in their subway cars every 2 to 4 minutes, notes Billy Penn about the Philadelphia region’s SEPTA transit system. To put this in perspective, health officials say restaurants should circulate outside air once every hour.
That’s in theory, but what’s happening in reality?
In general, public transit has proven to be a low-risk setting for Covid-19 transmission. According to the New York Times:
“In Paris, public health authorities conducting contact tracing found that none of the 386 infection clusters identified between early May and mid-July were linked to the city’s public transportation.”
The same thing happened in Japan, a country known for its crowded commuter trains. Said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist and public health expert at Tohoku University, about the lack of evidence that cluster infections happened on commuter trains: “An infected individual can infect others in such an environment, but it must be rare.”
The apparent low risk of infection on Japan’s trains also may be due to sanitization efforts. The Japan Times reports that Tokyo Metro is spraying its “nearly 3,000 cars with a superfine atomization of a silver-based compound, taking advantage of silver’s anti-antimicrobial properties to repel the virus from surfaces.”
Why have Covid-19 infections from transit been so low?
Transit agencies are putting considerable effort into disinfecting vehicles and distributing masks to passengers. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards made it clear that her transit agency is approaching the face mask issue from many angles: “We don’t want customers on our system without masks or face coverings, but we also don’t want to put our front-line employees in difficult positions leading to confrontational situations, and we don’t want our SEPTA police pulling people off our vehicles, either.”
In addition to wearing masks, passengers tend to limit conversation. With ridership at 45%-70% of their normal levels, due to many people working from home, vehicles generally aren’t crowded, which allows for adequate social distancing. For a better understanding of public transit’s response to the pandemic, the American Public Transportation Association’s coronavirus resource page is informative.
“We’re looking at potentially introducing a contactless method of payment through our new transit app.” – Joshua Schank, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Creating a more contactless environment is also emerging as a priority. Joshua Schank, Chief Innovation officer at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, stated “we’re looking at potentially introducing a contactless method of payment through our new transit app. This would be a different way of paying that would allow people to avoid any kind of contact with human beings or machines.”
Everyone will have varying levels of comfort with riding public transit and personal health considerations are important to take into account. But before you write off transit and get stuck in traffic driving your car to work, it may be worth the effort to take a closer look at the emerging evidence around the safety of riding transit during Covid-19 when making your decision.