Skip to main content

How cities are fighting coronavirus on public transportation

Our subways and buses are about to get the delousing of their lives

Share this story

MTA Cleans Subway Stations As More Coronavirus Cases Confirmed In New York City Area
Photo by Yana Paskova / Getty Images

With novel coronavirus cases on the rise, public transit agencies across the US are ramping up their contagious virus response plans. Chief among these action items is bleach — and lots of it.   

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which hosts 8 million passengers a day, said it would be bringing in a hefty supply of bleach and other antiviral treatments. They’ll be used for cleaning subway station equipment like MetroCard machines, turnstiles, and handrails. With 472 subway stations above and below ground, 4,373 buses, and 6,418 train cars, the task ahead is enormous. The agency said its full fleet — every subway car, bus, and commuter train — would be disinfected every 72 hours. 

“If it smells like bleach when you get on a bus or when a child goes to school, it is not bad cologne,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on March 2nd. “It is bleach.”

“If it smells like bleach when you get on a bus or when a child goes to school, it is not bad cologne.”

But the message from elected officials has been decidedly mixed as to whether people should avoid using public transit. At a briefing on Thursday, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said it was safe to ride the subway and that he did so earlier in the day. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a frequent target for criticism for his frequent use of a city-owned SUV, was photographed using the subway for a trip from City Hall to the Office of Emergency Management in Brooklyn. 

Days later, the mayor had a different message: try to skip the crowded trains if you can.

The idea that a crowded subway platform is somehow less dangerous than a crowded subway seems questionable. And although the mayor is encouraging people to bike or walk, the city isn’t closing down streets to private cars to encourage New Yorkers to use alternate modes of transportation. If anything, people are likely to interpret de Blasio’s message about transit as an excuse to use ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft, which will make traffic congestion worse and ruin commutes for everyone.

These types of choices are now being felt by cities around the country. Health officials have warned that the virus seems to spread easily, traveling through the air in tiny droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs, or sneezes. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus can live on certain surfaces for up to 24 hours. Infectious disease experts have been urging cities to prepare for “social distancing” measures like canceling large public gatherings, dividing classrooms into smaller groups or giving some students some days off, postponing face-to-face meetings, or arranging people to work from home.

MTA Cleans Subway Stations As More Coronavirus Cases Confirmed In New York City Area
Photo by Yana Paskova / Getty Images

But good luck distancing yourself socially in dense urban areas where people live cheek-to-jowl and cram themselves onto packed subways and buses on a daily basis. 

“There isn’t any doubt that if you’ve been on the New York City subway you are in close contact with a lot of your fellow citizens,” said William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. “It’s in that type of environment where coronavirus can spread if you’re not careful.”

Around the country, transportation officials are getting out their bleach to respond to the new coronavirus. 

In San Francisco, BART officials are wiping down their buses and subways with disinfectants, while trying to reassure an anxious public. At first, it seemed like the disease wasn’t preventing people from riding. BART continued to carry about 405,000 daily riders on average each weekday in February, according to data released to the Mercury News. But that changed as the number of cases increased: BART’s ridership fell 9 percent, dropping to 1.86 million passenger trips last week, and down from 2.03 million passenger trips the week before.

Los Angeles’ Metro has formed a coronavirus task force to coordinate with city health officials and the CDC. The agency’s buses and trains are likewise being cleaned and disinfected every day. Similar preventative methods are underway in Chicago, Boston, and Seattle

City Of Seattle Disinfects And Cleans Public Spaces As 6 Deaths In Area Result From Coronavirus
Photo by Karen Ducey / Getty Images

It’s unclear whether this will address people’s fears about public transportation, though. As noted by Vice’s Aaron Gordon, a survey from 2005 found that most people in European and Asian countries would avoid public transportation during a pandemic, with a majority of respondents listing subways and buses as risky places for infection. 

That may not be the case. Although coronavirus research is still in its early stages, a 2011 study of a possible influenza outbreak in New York City determined that 4 percent of transmissions would occur on the subway. “This suggests that interventions targeted at subway riders would be relatively ineffective in containing the epidemic,” the study’s authors conclude.

a 2011 study found that 4 percent of transmissions would occur on the subway

City officials are likely to recommend residents self-quarantine before taking steps to curtail or shut down public transportation. But either way, transit will take a hit. It happened in China where the coronavirus outbreak originated. Transit use collapsed in the wake of the government’s restrictions on travel. 

According to China’s Ministry of Transport, on the last day of the Lunar New Year travel rush (February 18th), there were 13 million overall passenger trips, which is a decline of 79.5 percent from the last Lunar New Year holiday. Between January 25th, when government-imposed travel restrictions went into effect, and February 18th, the overall passenger traffic flows on rail and at subway stations combined was 82 percent lower.

The best advice to avoid contracting the illness is to wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and avoid face-to-face contact with people who are coughing and sneezing. “I’m curious how you would do that on a subway,” Schaffner added. 

MBTA Steps Up Cleaning Efforts to Protect Against Coronavirus
Photo by David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

That said, epidemiologists say the risk of contracting the virus from someone on public transportation is difficult to gauge. Much of it depends on two factors: How crowded is it? And how much time do you plan to spend there? 

“People who take relatively short rides might do well to just walk and get a little exercise,” Schaffner said. “I think people will take greater care to distance themselves from one another as much as they can.”

New Yorkers got a taste of this in 2014 when a doctor who traveled to Guinea got infected with Ebola and returned to the city. Just when he started to feel “sluggish,” he made the terrible decision to ride the subway. 

“People who take relatively short rides might do well to just walk and get a little exercise.”

The difference, of course, is that Ebola is incredibly hard to contract, while coronavirus can be spread more easily. Also, no one contracted Ebola in New York in 2014. “We know people with minimum symptoms or no symptoms at all can transmit the virus,” Schaffner said. That is why public health officials are urging people who think they may be infected to keep themselves as distant from anyone else as much as possible. 

Most public transportation agencies have a contagious virus or pandemic response plans to put into effect during these circumstances, said Chad Chitwood, program manager at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). 

While each city develops its own plan based on its own unique needs, there are broad similarities. That includes ramping up regularly scheduled cleanings and making regular announcements to staff and riders about best practices to protect themselves and others. It may also involve freeing up extra money to buy more protective supplies, like face masks and gloves, for transit workers. “Every system has employees who are trained on how to handle bodily fluids, so it’s about logical preventative steps,” Chitwood said.

APTA regularly updates its standard contagious virus response plan as a resource to transit agencies. The plan is pretty broad, avoiding specific references to diseases in favor of offering a general outline for what transit agencies should do in the event of an influenza-like outbreak. 

“it’s about logical preventative steps.”

The response plan should be applicable to all contagious diseases, but it is based on the phases and subphases of a bird flu pandemic as defined by the World Health Organization. This scale starts at phase 1, when the virus is detectable in animals but the risk of human infection is low, to phase 7, when there is increased and sustained transmission of a disease in the general populace. At that last stage, cities are advised to consider reducing service, with the final action being a complete shutdown of rail and bus operations. 

Shutting down a city’s public transit system, though, could hurt a city’s ability to combat an outbreak since many public health workers rely on subways and buses to get around. This could lead to hospitals finding themselves critically understaffed during a moment that calls for all hands on deck. We’re still a ways off from these drastic measures, and it’s likely that we’ll never see them fully implemented. But service cuts or full shutdowns are certainly part of the conversation taking place right now in operation centers across the country. 

The bleach will have to suffice for now. “It sounded like the risk dissipates quickly, but it appears that sanitization can be useful, especially if done frequently,” said Paul Lewis, VP of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation. “Whether it’s justified or not, we are already seeing a dip in travel domestically and worldwide, and it is trending downward as the virus spreads.”

Update March 10th, 8:58 AM ET: Added new ridership numbers for BART.