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Despite an early panic regarding the use of public transportation during the pandemic, scientists reportedly said public transit has proven to be one of the most COVID-safe places to be outside the home.
Many scientific studies are reassuring essential workers that it’s largely safe to take public transportation given that many public transit vehicles are relatively uncrowded, well-ventilated, and usually not the site of the kind of loud conversations that can accelerate the spread of airborne particles. Moreover, the fact that most transit agencies are requiring personal protective equipment to passengers also factors in.
Moreover, scientists also think that most intra-urban public transit trips are too short for passengers to inhale the high concentration of aerosols necessary for virus transmission. Some epidemiologists even think that shared car services, such as Uber and Lyft, may be more dangerous than mass modes.
Some of the different international studies that suggest that transit is safer than anyone thought at the start of the pandemic include those conducted in Japan, Milan, and Paris.
First off, researchers at Kyoto University conducted a preliminary study of more than 3,000 early coronavirus cases, which found that, from January through April, absolutely no super-spreader events took place on public transportation. Back then, the findings were surprising given that Japan is a country that relies heavily on its public transportations, like subways and busses, for the population’s daily commutes. The study was later published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases in September.
Similarly, Paris also found no evidence that public transit contributed to any of its large COVID-19 clusters. Researchers found that of more than 150 super-spreader events in the city, none could be traced back to Paris’s public transportation system.
Lastly, Italy locked down some transit networks when the entire country became a COVID-19 hotspot early in the pandemic. However, as the weather warmed and cases subsided, commuters in Milan returned to using trains — which didn’t result in a positive case spike. The city’s COVID-19 case load stayed surprisingly flat all summer. That is until September, when the weather became colder and residents began to pack restaurants, bars, and other enclosed public spaces.
What these aforementioned cities have in common is the rapid adoption of masks when using public transit. Because of the tough lessons of the SARS epidemic, commuters in Japan began wearing masks on public transportation long before the coronavirus pandemic. Paris, for its part, issued a mask mandate and outfited the transit agency with the World Health Organization-recommended tools it needed to keep passengers and workers safe. Milan also required mandatory mask usage, as well as allowing trains and buses to operate at 80% capacity.
Because of the rise in positive cases in Milan, some blame public transportation for the city’s second wave — though most think that it was in fact the lack of enforcement on the 80% limit caused the problem rather than the fact that the subway is running.
Meanwhile, U.S. transit vehicles are nowhere near their capacity limits nor have local and state governments received federal support for a mask mandate. And despite this, no COVID-19 infection clusters in the country have been attributed to encounters on public transportation.Needless to say, commuters in the U.S. face higher dangers out on the roads in personal cars, bicycles, and even on foot than in busses and trains. In a recent report, the American Public Transportation Association pointed out that “passengers are about 20 times more likely to experience a fatal crash in a car than when using public transit,” because of the dangers of the high-speed auto travel of typical American commuting.