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Public Transportation in the Pandemic Era

Cover Photo by JC Gellidon via Unsplash

For those in COVID-19 hotspots, the thought of going to the grocery store can be a major cause for fear. One-way aisles, contactless transactions, and capacity limits can all unearth a good deal of confusion. Getting there, however, proves even more complicated. For those in urban areas and for those who do not have vehicles of their own, public transportation presents a real yet unavoidable risk. 

New York City subways are perhaps the prime example. Back in March, the count of weekday users hovered at roughly 5.5 million. As of August, only about 20% of this population has hopped back on the bandwagon. What’s the real deal with transmission and public transportation?

On the bright side, experts might have some good news. In Paris, for example, research done on over 380 clusters from May to July showed no connection to urban public transit. The story is similar in Hong Kong, where one public health official noted that mass transportation has not been pegged as a leading cause of any major outbreaks. Of course, these findings should all be taken with a grain of salt. The specific conditions of ventilation and capacity, as well as the extent of mask-wearing and the percentage drop in riders, are not uniform across areas. 

Further, scientists have also noted that using less public transportation might actually be harmful in the long run. Mass transportation allows for fewer emissions and contributes less to air pollution than if these hordes of passengers were to drive their own vehicles. The degradation of air quality that comes alongside this pollution only serves to exaggerate the COVID-19 issue. (According to research emerging from Harvard University, this trend might be especially pertinent for communities of color.)

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is exploring ultraviolet light as a means of sterilizing subway cars. In the Czech Republic and Hungary, scientists are looking into ozone gas to achieve the same goal. Hydrogen peroxide is a potential helper in Hong Kong. However, due to the fact that the virus is primarily contracted through droplets found in the air, cleaning the surfaces passengers touch, sit on, and stand on is only part of the job. 

Given these caveats, the Center for Disease Control still recommends being cautious when using public transportation. Taking advantage of touchless transactions and avoiding handrails, buttons, and benches can all help to abate the risk. (Of course, please also wear a mask!)

Have you been using public transportation during the pandemic? Let us know in the poll below!

Cover Photo by JC Gellidon via Unsplash

  • Have you been using public transportation to get around this summer?

    • Yes
    • No


Written by Megan Pontin

Enthusiastic word-collector, avid pancake-consumer, and experienced hammock-lounger. Student at Cornell University.

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