A new paper from researchers at New York University examined data from 121 cities across the country over a 10-year span, and found the number of people that died from influenza did not increase in cities with higher public transit ridership. The report’s authors suggest that public transit is not a significant vector for spreading viruses.
“We have found out that the use of mass transit is not a singularly important factor in the transmission of influenza,” Mitchell Moss, director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, and one of the authors of the report, said.
Moss said with mask use high on the subway, at more than 90% compliance, according to the MTA, the culture of subway riders also helps prevent the spread on public transit.
“I’m much more concerned about crowding in elevators than I am in the subway where we know people are looking at their iPads, playing video games, and looking away from people,” he said.
This new study comes as ridership on New York’s subway remains, on average, about 70% below pre-pandemic levels, leaving the MTA with a crippling budget crisis due to lost ridership. The agency has been doing everything it can to assure riders it’s safe to ride the subway and the bus, as long as passengers wear masks.
The NYU report follows other recent academic studies of viruses and public transit, which find mass transit in crowded urban cities is not the way viruses are spread. The CDC’s latest guidance suggests the coronavirus is mainly spread by people who are in close contact with one another.
The study doesn’t conclude that people who ride public transit are at more or less at risk than people who don’t ride it.
“However, despite widespread concerns about the role of public transit in diffusing respiratory disease, our findings suggest that the rate of utilization is not a singularly important factor in the local prevalence of influenza,” the paper notes.
The MTA welcomed the findings of this report.
"This is the latest in a cascade of scientific reporting that shows transit is not a vector for the spread of respiratory diseases, and there has been no serious evidence worldwide connecting transit routes and spread of this virus,”MTA spokesperson Meredith Daniels wrote in a statement.
Despite espousing the wisdom of such scientific research and evidence, the MTA continues to shut the subway overnight between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. for costly deep cleaning. Experts say touching surfaces is not the main way the coronavirus is spread. The agency estimates it disinfects 5,000 subway cars a day, as well as stations, at a cost of $500,000 this year, and likely next year it will cost the same.
“The MTA continues to lead the way in its response to the pandemic -- from aggressive cleaning and disinfecting to mandating masks for all customers and employees and deploying innovative air filtration technology across our system," Daniels wrote in response to a question about the ongoing cleaning efforts.
Despite riders not being likely to catch the virus on their commute, MTA workers are still concerned about the second wave, after losing 128 people to the virus this year. Workers have ongoing concerns about a lack of mask compliance from their colleagues, and worry that small, crowded breakrooms could be places where the virus is spread.
To address these concerns, the agency has set up rapid testing at some work sites for employees, and is offering free tests at other clinics. The positivity rate for MTA workers remains far lower than the city average at less than 1%. There’s also trailers at some terminals for workers to take breaks in.
As for riders, the MTA said air circulation on the subways is comparable to health care facilities, with the rate of fresh exchanged 9 and 18 times per hour, “which exceeds the minimum rates of air exchanges per hour cited by the CDC for certain for certain health care facilities,” a spokesperson for the MTA wrote. Metro-North is undergoing a pilot with new virus killing filters that bring in fresh air 30 times an hour.