Fear of Crowds May End Up Haunting U.S. Transit Agencies

“Crowding” has emerged as one of the buzziest terms in public transport during the Covid-19 era. Seeking to avoid standing-room-only trips — and the elevated fears of contagion that now accompany any gathering of people in an enclosed space — transit agencies in cities like Pittsburgh and Oakland have revised their rules to limit the number of bus passengers allowed on board. Some, like Boston’s MBTA and L.A. Metro, have started offering passengers real-time crowding estimates for buses and trains.

This fixation on transit crowding is understandable. Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, thesix-foot social distancing guidance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control has been firmly fixed into the consciousness of most Americans, and that much separation isn’t always possible in enclosed vehicles, be they trains, buses, taxis or airliners.

But overseas, some transit systems have managed to return to normal capacity without evidence so far that they are exposing workers or passengers to undue risk. Taipei’s metro system is once again packed, for example, with no virus spread detected. Transit riders have also returned in countries like Spain and Japan without evidence of spreading the disease.

So how did crowding become a proxy for transit’s perceived safety in the U.S.? One reason is that it’s easier to manage than mask compliance, which is politically polarizing. Health officials cite mask usage as a critical way of minimizing virus transmission — and for helping to prevent spread on bustling subway systems in places like Tokyo and Paris. But Japan and France aren’t led by elected officials who shrug off the importance of masks, as many Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have. On Oct. 2 — the very day that the mask-averse President Donald Trump announced he had the virus — the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected a request from transit workers to mandate mask usage aboard commercial transportation. And theWhite House thwarted a CDC order from last month that would have required masks to be worn by passengers and workers on all forms of public and commercial transit, the New York Times reported on Friday. 

Without a clear nationwide mask requirement, states, cities and transit agencies have had to manage policymaking and enforcement themselves. That has often proved to be a challenge. New York City officials recently announced a $50 fine for those who disobey the local mask mandate aboard buses and trains, but transit workers are (understandably) wary about confronting passengers who remain recalcitrant. Complicating enforcement, New York Police Department officers themselves regularly violate mask mandates within stations.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of American transit’s mask-enforcement bind can be found on the South Shore Line in suburban Chicago: The commuter train service has set aside a “mask-optional” car for passengers who refuse to comply with this most basic of public health measures. Such a move may seem crazy, but it does prevent agency staff from risking their own safety by confronting unmasked riders, and it keeps those riders away from everyone else during the trip.

It’s not hard to see how we got here. In the early days of the pandemic, many observers explicitly blamed public transportation for “seeding” outbreaks. In April, an economist wrote a much-publicized but quickly refuted analysis tying New York City’s coronavirus toll to its subway system. A month later, a Los Angeleno hypothesized in the New York Times that her city’s low case count was due to residents’ love of driving. (Infections in L.A. have since spiked.) The CDC even advised employers that workers should avoid public transportation, before quietly backpedaling a few days later. The notion that buses and trains constitute a “petri dish” of contagion was widely echoed both by transit workers seeking better protections and by foes of public transportation, many of whom have long associated this mode with danger and disease.

To be fair, some initial concerns about transit’s safety were entirely understandable. At least 131 New York City MTA workers died from the virus during the early wave of infection across the city; nationally, the transit workforce suffered as well. But as tragic as that toll is, the Urban Institute’s Yonah Freemark noted that the MTA’s share of New York’s overall fatalities seems roughly in line with the proportion of the population that works there (the MTA employs about 74,000 people). More recent research suggests that New York’s subway trains are relatively safe, and that the risks of contagion are dramatically reduced with masks and proper ventilation. 

Still, the impression of danger has remained, especially on packed vehicles. A survey by Transit App, a startup, found strong interest for crowding information, and dozens of transit agencies have begun using passenger counters to give real-time estimates to the public. But is crowding information that useful when applied to a pandemic? (It is clearly valuable to those with limited mobility.) To ask the question in a different way, how safe are you if your vehicle is half-full, but several passengers aren’t wearing masks?

Faced with the thorniness of mask compliance, it is unsurprising that transit leaders would prefer to focus on vehicle crowding instead. Beyond offering real-time crowding estimates, many agencies have implemented capacity constraints on buses. Prompted months ago by the CDC and state departments of health, they have instructed drivers to bypass riders waiting at a station after a vehicle reaches its new passenger limit, providing more distance between riders.

But American transit agencies’ ongoing focus on passenger crowding could create problems if it lingers after the pandemic recedes. After all, mass transportation relies on moving large numbers of people in relatively small vehicles. Crowding, to some degree, is necessary; transit’s operational and financial models collapse if passengers keep demanding lots of space around them while they ride. 

There’s a danger that the focus on crowding could end up backfiring on transit agencies, who are now facing afinancial reckoning. Capacity caps can impose major inconvenience on those forced to wait for the next bus to arrive — especially since many agencies have also reduced service frequency during the pandemic. “If the caps erode frequency and reliability, that’s a real problem,” says David Bragdon, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Transit Center. “If you’re randomly and unpredictably adding time to someone’s trip by forcing them to wait longer, that’s very discouraging to a rider.” Frustrated passengers could abandon public transportation altogether, complicating agencies’ post-pandemic road to recovery.

For now, that recovery lies in the future. The pandemic has placed transit systems in a precarious position, and they are deeply deserving of government support. With ridership remaining far below pre-Covid levels and hope for emergency funding from Congress dimming, agencies are in dire financial straits. Transit leaders are reaching for every possible lever to win over riders and ease their anxieties. But agencies should be careful about unintentionally reinforcing the notion that a full bus or train is innately unsafe. If they do, they may end up only hurting themselves.

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