Public Transportation and COVID-19: Traveling Safely on Your Commute

While COVID-19 has scared riders away from public transportation, researchers note that there hasn’t been a link between major outbreaks and public transportation. Why? Read on to learn more.

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Public Transportation and COVID-19 -- Blog Post
Improved ventilation, face mask requirements, personal hand straps, stepped-up cleaning protocols — these are a few of the solutions transit systems are taking to make commuting safer during COVID-19.

As COVID-19 shut down much of the nation in mid-March, ridership on trains, buses, and ferries plummeted. While public transit usage is inching its way back up, any sort of meaningful increase has been dogged by not only the persistence of the coronavirus in the United States, but also riders’ fears about returning to confined spaces during a global pandemic.

“I’ve been very secluded living in a rural area since March, and my anxiety is high thinking about getting back on a train into the city,” said Suzanne McDaniel, who commuted 1.5 hours a day by train to her job in downtown Boston before the pandemic.

In late June, she started going back into the office a couple of days a month but takes her car instead of the train.

“I may continue to drive as long as the traffic remains light,” she added.

Continue to the rest of the story after the infographic. 

Public Transportation and COVID-19 -- Infographic

Promising news for transit commuters

Despite commuters’ reluctance to return to transit, there is some encouraging news for those who either need or choose to take public transportation. As both Bloomberg CityLab and the New York Times have reported, studies coming out of countries where the virus has ebbed suggest that dense transit systems may not be as risky as one might expect.

In Paris, France and Tokyo, Japan — where transit ridership has started to recover — investigations of virus clusters between May and June found no relationship between outbreaks and those cities’ subway systems.

Why is this?

Part of the reason is that these countries have already done a good job containing the virus and are providing consistent messaging to a cooperative public about social distancing and wearing face coverings. Japan, in particular, already had a strong culture of mask wearing, and subway riders there tend to travel in silence, which is important since speaking in confined spaces is known to be an effective virus spreader.

While the United States as a whole still struggles to get a handle on the pandemic, transit agencies for their part seem to be laser focused on implementing and enforcing protocols to keep customers safe.

While the United States as a whole still struggles to get a handle on the pandemic, transit agencies for their part seem to be laser focused on implementing and enforcing protocols to keep customers safe.

What are transit agencies doing to ensure health and safety?

According to a survey of members conducted by the American Public Transit Association (APTA) in July, 86% of U.S. transit agencies now require passengers to wear a face covering, something McDaniel said is a must-have for her to consider getting back on the train.

This summer, Google Maps launched a new feature that provides users searching for transit routes with an agency’s COVID-related regulations, including whether or not face coverings are required.

Google Maps

Transit agencies have universally stepped up cleaning protocols, with more frequent use of virus-killing disinfectants on vehicles, at stations, and in common areas used by staff.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), according to its website, is piloting a number of new cleaning technologies, such as ultraviolet light to sanitize their subways and buses, as well as antimicrobial biostats that prevent microbes from growing on surfaces. MTA is also focused on improving ventilation by replacing air filters every 36 days instead of every 72 days.

Barriers at staffed ticket counters, and even between bus drivers and passengers, are also popping up, while hand sanitizer dispensers have become ubiquitous.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in the San Francisco Bay Area has taken a unique approach to cleanliness by offering passengers the opportunity to purchase personal hand straps so they can avoid contact with public touchpoints.

Social distancing is one of the most important factors in reducing COVID risk, and agencies are doing everything they can to ensure passengers are able to maintain a healthy distance from each other.

Transit agencies have universally stepped up cleaning protocols, with more frequent use of virus-killing disinfectants on vehicles, at stations, and in common areas used by staff.

The Capitol Corridor train in Northern California, for example, has continued running its normal train lengths despite sluggish ridership to give passengers plenty of room to space out. Most Amtrak trains require advance reservations and limit the number of bookings to support social distancing.

Ferry commuters have a distinct advantage when it comes to social distancing. According to Ian Sterling of Washington State Ferry, it’s easy for passengers to stay a healthy distance from each other on vessels that normally hold more than a thousand people. Ferry customers also have the option to be outside, and those who drive on are encouraged to remain in their cars.

To help potential riders plan their own COVID-safe travel, agencies are also leveraging technology.

Metrolink in Los Angeles introduced an app called “How Full is My Train?” This tool allows customers to check recent ridership levels of a train they plan to ride to confirm they will have the ability to maintain the recommended six-foot distance from fellow passengers.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) also launched a real-time crowding information pilot for select bus routes, available on the MBTA website, on certain digital signs, and within the agency’s smartphone app.

Tips for a healthy and safe commute

While transit operators have taken steps to enhance travel health and safety, nervous commuters can ease their worries and reduce risk for themselves and fellow riders with the following tips.

  1. Before venturing out, check your transit agency’s website to get specifics about their health and safety protocols, such as how they are filtering air and if they require face coverings.
  2. Don’t leave the house without a face covering (although many agencies will provide a disposable mask for customers who forget), and wear your face covering over your mouth and nose at all times.
  3. Be vigilant about keeping your hands clean, whether it be washing frequently with soap and warm water or applying hand sanitizer before and after you board a vehicle. Trains like Amtrak and the Capitol Corridor, as well as ferries, even have bathrooms for hand washing.
  4. Buy your transit ticket online, in advance, to eliminate the need for contact. If you need to purchase your fare with cash be prepared with exact change.
  5. Sit as far as possible from other non-companion passengers and minimize talking, as this is shown to be a risk factor for virus spread.
  6. If you are lucky enough to commute by ferry, stay in your car (if you drove) or grab a spot on the outside deck.
  7. Bus riders should try and sit by a window and open it if possible.
  8. Make your transit trip as short as possible by choosing an itinerary that incorporates other modes, such as walking or biking.
  9. If possible, change your work hours so you can commute during less busy times. Many agencies offer tools for checking route-specific ridership so you can choose less crowded schedules.
  10. Last, but certainly not least, stay at home if you are sick or not feeling well.

As more people resume their commutes, vigilance – on the part of agencies that provide vital transit services, as well as the people who use those services – will be critical to ensuring public transportation remains a safe and reliable connection between work and home.

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