Public Transit and Public Health

How can we practice 'social distancing' in our cities – places whose very existence relies on social interaction?

MBTA staff disinfect fare gates in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses in early March 2020. Courtesy of the MBTA.
MBTA staff disinfect fare gates in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses in early March 2020. Courtesy of the MBTA.

The new Coronavirus (COVID-19) started having a major impact on civic life in the Commonwealth this week: public agencies are cancelling meetings, universities are sending students home, traffic congestion has evaporated, and the MBTA started taking additional measures to disinfect stations and vehicles.

These are still early days in the transmission of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, but judging from the experiences of places where the virus had more time to spread, the impact on day-to-day life could get much more severe in a relatively short time.

Public health agencies have shifted their focus from efforts to contain COVID-19 to trying to slow its spread though “social distancing” – minimizing the opportunity for the virus to transmit from person to person.

In an interview with Vox, Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, explained how avoiding crowds – even if you feel healthy – has become a new civic responsibility.

“If more of us do that, we will slow the spread of the disease,” said Landon. “That means my mom and your mom will have a hospital bed if they need it… The more young and healthy people are sick at the same time, the more old people will be sick, and the more pressure there will be on the health care system,” said Landon.

Even amidst widespread quarantines, though, people will still need to interact with others to satisfy the basic needs of living – and those basic needs include  transportation.

Even in Milan, which has been under quarantine since March 8, grocery stores and drug stores are still open, and the city’s public transit agency is still running its trains.

But given the need to slow person-to-person COVID-19 transmission, keeping public transportation open and available in the midst of a pandemic may require us to use it less, to the extent that we can.

In a March 10 Twitter thread, Brookline state Rep. Tommy Vitolo suggested that, in addition to washing hands and avoiding handshakes, people could also try to walk or bike instead to help keep public transit less crowded.

“I’m a big fan of mass transit, and the @MBTA and others are disinfecting often,” wrote Vitolo. “Still, walk or bike is less time in a close crowd, and more time exercising, a two-fer.”

People seem to be heeding that advice. While other forms of traffic around the region appear to be declining, the bicycle counter on Broadway in Kendall Square has so far been registering significantly more riders this week compared to the previous two weeks:

Recent bicycle traffic counts from the City of Cambridge's counter on Broadway in Kendall Square. Data courtesy of the City of Cambridge.
Recent bicycle traffic counts from the City of Cambridge’s counter on Broadway in Kendall Square. Data courtesy of the City of Cambridge.

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