COVID-19: Is public transport safer than we think?
As the world continues to adjust to COVID-19 people are shying away from using public transport. But are the fears justified?
When global finance firm Carlyle issued an edict telling employees not to take public transport to work to prevent the spread of coronavirus, it brought into sharp focus a seismic shift in the way mass transit is perceived in the COVID-age.
Carlyle’s policy, which also requires staff to self-isolate for 14 days if they catch a train or bus on the weekend, crystallises a pervasive fear that public transport presents a dangerously high-risk environment for infection.
These fears have spurred a sharp drop in public transport use around the world as cities emerge from lockdown. A recent Traveller Sentiment Survey found 52 per cent of respondents across nine countries were “uncomfortable” using subways and buses.
In Melbourne, a recent Monash University study predicts an exodus from the metropolitan public transport system, forecasting patronage will recover to just 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels, even as the pandemic subsides. Lead researcher on the study, Professor Graham Currie, told The Age: “Crowding and infection fear are new major concerns for users.”
The implications for those who plan and live in our cities are worrying. The Monash study found that while many pre-pandemic commuters will opt to work from home, an estimated 9 per cent would ditch the train or bus and drive to work instead. The result could be traffic gridlock.
It’s hardly surprising that people are wary of crowding onto a poorly ventilated tram or train with scores of strangers in the midst of a pandemic. Yet there is evidence that public transport may be less risky than many of us think.
A recent Bloomberg article highlighted international research which calls into question a link between public transport and significant COVID-19 outbreaks. In France, the national public health body revealed that not one of 150 clusters of new coronavirus cases between 9 May and 3 June were associated with public transport. Likewise in Japan, Science reported that following the end of that country’s state of emergency most infection clusters were happening in crowded gyms, bars and karaoke rooms – none were linked to its crowded commuter trains.
And, in Guangzhou, China, a preliminary study of nearly 5000 close contacts found that the risk of transmission on public transport was “low” (just one per cent of the risk of a household setting), and concluded that returning to work or school on public transport was “feasible … on the premise of low personal density”.
Yet other cities tell a different story. New York’s transport system, for example, has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, with at least 132 MTA workers killed by the disease. And in London, 37 public transit workers – including 28 bus drivers – have died from the virus.