Fearful commuters on trains, buses hold one key to U.S. recovery

Commuters wearing protective masks ride a subway during morning rush hour in New York, on June 22. Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Masks are mandatory on subways and buses in Washington, D.C. San Francisco is betting longer trains will help riders social distance. Crews disinfect New York’s trains daily — stations twice a day — and are testing ultraviolet light devices to see if they kill covid-19 on surfaces.

As states gradually reopen, transit agencies are taking steps to coax back passengers who’ve been told for months to avoid just such tight quarters with strangers — an effort that will ultimately influence the economic recovery.

“For certain businesses teleworking isn’t really an option, so we still need to figure out ways to get those people to work,” said Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Especially in urban areas, where many people don’t own cars, mass transit will be crucial to reviving economies. But enticing passengers back on board may require adding trains and buses so people can space themselves farther apart — adding stress to agencies already reeling from declining ridership and rising cleaning costs.

The one-two punch of lower revenue from fewer riders and steeper cleaning costs has devastated the finances New York City’s transit system, which has left only a quarter of the nearly $4 billion in federal aid received in March. Those funds could be exhausted next month, and the agency is urging Congress to approve additional emergency aid.

“This is going to be an ongoing issue that agencies are definitely going to need some financial assistance from all levels of government to get through this difficult time,” Mortimer said. “But it’s all a balancing act in how do we make it work.”

Health experts say that the very nature of mass transit -- efficiently moving large numbers of people in confined spaces -- presents inherent risks.

“The greatest risk occurs when you’re in close contact — within six feet — with someone from outside your household for a prolonged period of time,” said Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “Really crowded buses and crowded subway systems obviously are things that we’re going to be worried about.”

Rush-hour crowds won’t appear overnight, Godwin said. People will return to their offices gradually, while companies and governments in many places continue to ask people to work from home if possible.

IBM Corp. polling of nearly of 30,000 U.S. adults between mid-April and early June found more than one in five typical transit users said they would no longer do so, and nearly a third said they’d use it less, the company said in an email.

If a lack of ridership forces service cuts, the effect could be widening the divide between those who have the flexibility to work at home or the means to drive cars, versus those who must report to work and have no alternatives to public transportation.

“It just becomes more likely than transit agencies will say maybe we just need to provide less frequent service, and then the people who really rely on it have a big mobility problem,” said Deborah Salon, associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Ultimately, COVID-19 may force long-term changes in commuting patterns and infrastructure demands.

“We know that at the end of the day that the public has to feel confident and feel good about riding transit, that it’s safe for them from a health standpoint,” said Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, the transit industry’s Washington trade association.

That will cost money. While agencies received $25 billion in emergency aid from the federal virus stimulus bill, APTA has asked lawmakers and the Trump administration to authorize nearly $24 billion in additional emergency aid.

“The stress on agencies is very real,” Skoutelas said. “There is a need for additional funding across the board from New York to California for systems large and small.”

Transit systems have taken a range of actions to win back riders after ridership in some cities dropped by 90% or more during the initial wave of the pandemic.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco has been running longer trains throughout the day to prevent crowding on its cars. All riders and employees on New York’s subways are required to wear masks and the system is handing them out to people who need them. Subway stations have been outfitted with new signs and floor markings to promote keeping at a safe distance where possible.

Those actions may help allay the fears of riders, according to a report commissioned by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an transit advocacy group for the greater New York City region. Some 92% out of roughly 1,000 regular transit users surveyed in April and May said they planned to return to public transportation after the pandemic. Those respondents said intensified cleaning, mandatory masks and more frequent service were among the actions transit agencies could take to make them feel safe enough to ride, while only 8% said they’d only return once there is a vaccine.

“The positive sign for many transit agencies is that much of the precautions riders want to see, including increased cleanings and mask requirements, are already in place. Better rider education about the steps already underway would help riders feel that transit is safe for use,” the report said.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest U.S. transit agency, on June 8 began returning subway and bus systems to normal weekday schedules to coincide with the first phase of the city’s reopening. After falling more than 90% from 8.3 million daily riders before the pandemic, ridership has been on the rise since May. NYC subway and bus ridership topped 2 million on Friday for first time since March.

To be sure, even MTA leaders acknowledge social distancing will be difficult if not impossible as more riders return.

“We do not believe that it is necessarily possible to get six feet of social distance in the New York City transit system,” Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, said at a news conference earlier this month.

Those concerns will keep some riders away, said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Intensified sanitation efforts, enforcing mask policies and efforts to prevent crowding can mitigate risks, but those efforts can only do so much until there’s a broadly available vaccine, he said.

“As more stores open and more things open and as tourists start to come back to New York City, the subway is going to be really important and it’s going to be an area where you might see a transmission risk,” Adalja said.

Subway and metro usage still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels in major Chinese cities that were struck by the virus in January. Although on the rise since February, daily subway ridership in Beijing was 32% below pre-virus levels in early June, while usage in Shanghai was still off 20%, according to a June 2 report by BloombergNEF.

“Will commuters be willing to re-board transit with a high degree of medical uncertainty and a liberalization of work from home policy?” Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “That’s the question.”

WPBloom

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