Are there bugs on the bus? How safe are public transport systems?

Recent research reveals public transportation might not be as dangerous as you think.

It’s understandable why so many people are avoiding public transit nowadays. Sitting in a cramped subway isn’t all that appealing during a global pandemic!

However, recent research reveals public transportation might not be as dangerous as you think.

Passenger Behavior

According to the latest data compiled by MIT, public transit vehicles don’t seem to be “hot zones” for COVID-19 transmissibility. There are many theories why this is the case, but researchers assume it might have to do with how people behave in these vehicles.

Unlike “super-spreader” areas like bars or gyms, most commuters don’t “spread spittle” on trains. Instead of talking loudly or sweating up a storm, people on buses or trains tend to patiently sit until they’re ready to get off. This significantly reduces the number of airborne particles, which might contribute to the lower risk of COVID-19.

Reduced Exposure

Another reason scientists believe public transit might have a lower risk profile is how long—or rather, how short—passengers stay in these vehicles. Unlike businesses or restaurants, people move out of trains at a fast clip, which reduces the chance of getting the coronavirus. 

Many cities are also experimenting with air filtration systems to remove potential toxins in subways, trains, and buses. California’s Department of Public Health (CDPA) strongly encourages transit authorities to install up-to-date filtration systems to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19. 

Public Transport Initiatives

While these features should be encouraging for commuters, that doesn’t mean more can’t be done to enhance public transit systems. California’s massive public transportation system serves as an example of how cities and states are enhancing health and safety on public transportation systems. the CDPA recently came out with a set of guidelines to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

In partnership with CalSTA and Cal/OSHA, the CDPA issued a mandatory mask policy for everyone working in California’s public transit industry. Public health workers also require transit authorities to develop hygiene programs that teach responsible social distancing and proper handwashing.   

Of course, due to the downturn in commuter transportation, many transit authorities complain they don’t have the funds to implement these changes. However, some counties have put together innovative low or no-cost solutions to keep Californians safe during this pandemic. 

For instance, the Los Angeles Metro now requires bus drivers to open their windows to keep air moving through their vehicles. To shorten the time people are in public transit, LA is currently working on creating bus-only lanes. 

Transportation Alternatives

There’s also a significant push towards bicycling and e-scooters in many Californian counties. For instance, Bay Area cities like Oakland and San Francisco placed a great emphasis on closing miles of side streets to cars. These “Slow Streets” are supposed to help bicyclists and pedestrians get around the city while maintaining social distance.

Note: although micro-mobility options aren’t as risky as riding in a vehicle with strangers, they aren’t 100 percent risk-free. If Californians are using a shared rentable device like an e-scooter, they should look into the company’s COVID-19 response plan. Many of these companies (e.g., Lime and Bird) say they are deploying more employees with disinfectant wipes, but it’s still wise for customers to wash their hands before and after riding these devices. 

Rideshare Companies

Speaking of “shareable vehicles,” rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft have announced new safety guidelines for their transportation services. Everyone who enters one of these rideshare vehicles must wear a mask at all times. Both companies also require all customers to sit in the back seat and open a window during their ride.

If you need more information on how COVID-19 is affecting California’s public transportation department, it’s best to start with this link to the state’s DOT. You could also read this CDC webpage to find out ways to safely ride the rails during COVID-19.    

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