Home View from Underground Transit in the time of COVID-19: The trains keep running as ridership drops while the MTA ramps up cleaning efforts

Transit in the time of COVID-19: The trains keep running as ridership drops while the MTA ramps up cleaning efforts

by Benjamin Kabak

As this surreal week has slipped by and New York’s response to the COVID-19 threat evolves every few hours, a lot of people have asked me the same questions: Will the trains keep running? Is it safe to ride them? I thought it would be useful to summarize where we are right now.

Transit Is Not Shutting Down

Will the trains keep running? That’s the question I’ve been asked the most, and the answer is clear: Right now, there are no plans to stop running subways, buses or commuter rail services. Rumors circulated throughout the day on Thursday that a shutdown — in effect, a quarantine-in-place for the city — was to be implemented, but the MTA and governor’s office vehemently denied this rumor. My sources within the agency did as well. For now, everything is running, and transit is not shutting down.

Could the state order a transit shutdown?

This one is tougher. The answer is yes; we’ve seen Governor Cuomo halt subway service in the face of a serious blizzard forecast. But for now, the monitoring is simply following available guidance. In an appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on Thursday morning, interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg explained that the MTA is watching the governmental response closely (and of course Gov. Cuomo could order implementation of the agency’s contingency planning). Ultimately, shutting down the transit system means cutting off health care providers from their jobs and patients from medical care so it’s not a decision the MTA and New York will ever make lightly.

“If the CDC or New York City Department of Health at some point tells us to completely change the way we’re operating the system, we will do that. We take our guidance from them,” Feinberg said. “But for now, we’re running a normal service. We have a lot of people who are using the service, obviously. We’ve seen ridership tick down a bit in the last week or so, but for now, a lot of people are using the system, and we will continue to execute on that.”

How is the MTA cleaning the system?

The MTA has upped its cleaning frequencies. Contact points in stations — Metrocard and ticket machines, benches, turnstiles, and handrails — are now being disinfected twice per day. All subways, commuter rail cars and buses are cleaned at terminals, and the entire rolling stock is disinfected every 72 hours. It’s a Herculean task that lays bare the deficiencies in the MTA’s pre-COVID-19 cleaning practices, and that brings me to the next question.

Is it safe to use public transit?

This isn’t an easy question, and there is no easy answer. As Aaron Gordon explored at the start of the outbreak in New York last week, most epidemiologists felt the subways were safe, but we’ve learned more about this novel coronavirus in the past few weeks. The underlying analysis is the same, but right now, to the extent possible, those who can should stay home. Those who have to travel should try to avoid rush hour crowds (though the crowds are getting smaller), and those who are at high risk should absolutely not be waiting on crowded platforms for crowded trains.

Otherwise, the advice is the same for the trains as it is for any other circumstance right now: Do what you feel is best for yourself and those with whom you’re in constant contact. Practice good hygiene and always wash your hands before touching anything else after you’ve ridden transit. Read on for more about the challenges to adding service and some statements from our political leaders that didn’t fill my with confidence last weekend.

What is happening to transit ridership?

It’s down and precipitously. Earlier in the week, the MTA had reported a “high single-digits” decline, but by Wednesday, the numbers showed a massive slowdown. Ridership on the subways was down nearly 19% vs. March 11, 2019, and the buses saw a dip of 15%. On Thursday morning, Metro-North and LIRR ridership was down 48% and 31% respectively from a comparable Thursday in March. Again, though, the MTA does not plan to curtail service in response to demand. At some point, all of this extra spending and huge dip in fare revenue will put extreme pressures on the MTA budget, but that is a bridge we will have to cross later once the pandemic has subsided. We may need to discuss an MTA bailout far earlier than anyone expected.

Could the MTA run more service to disperse crowds

This is a question I had considered earlier in the week before the city and state started implementing social distancing by fiat and transit ridership started to nose-dive. It’s an academic question at this point as nearly everyone expects transit ridership to decline steeply over the next few days and weeks.

I started thinking about this question last weekend when both Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio started telling people to avoid crowds. At press conference on Sunday, Cuomo said, “If citizens are taking mass transit, if you can move to a train car that is not as dense, if you see a packed train car, let it go by, wait for the next train, same with if you’re taking a bus. It’s the density to proximity that we’re trying to reduce.”

The mayor echoed the governor’s sentiments. “If you are traveling by subway and the train that comes up is all packed and you can possibly wait for the next train in the hopes it might be less packed,” Bill de Blasio said, “please do.”

At first, I didn’t really know what to make of these statements. At their roots, the advice — try to take trains when they aren’t as crowded — is sound, but practically, it’s foolish. Rush hour platforms would be as crowded as trains and thus just as likely to be hot spots for transmission and contagion. On Tuesday night, before the worst of the week settled in, Feinberg went on NY1 to add some much-needed context to these remarks. It’s not, she said, “not possible for everyone” to change their commuting patterns. “People have different schedules, she said. “The thing to know is.. avoid crowded trains when possible…So if you can telecommute, fantastic. If you can walk to work great. Now is a great time to do that. But most people can’t. Most people depend on the subways and the buses. We’re here to provide safe and efficient transportation for them.”

Feinberg’s point is the right one; most people can’t simply change their commuting patterns. Telling people to do something is far different than creating incentives for them to do so. And so, as I said, before many companies started enforcing work-from-home policies on Wednesday, this got me thinking about ways to mitigate crowds. Could the MTA extend service during rush hour? Could the agency create a longer period of peak-hour service frequency in an effort to spread out rush hour commutes and reduce crowding?

In an ideal world, the answer would be yes, but we live in a less-than-deal world with real-world constraints. While not every train line is at capacity, due to the availability of rolling stock, some key bottlenecks and crew availability, the MTA can’t add rush hour service. In the post-peak periods, adding service runs up against FRA requirements limiting the number of hours train operators can work and union regulations. As much as we would love to snap our fingers and add a few hours of frequent service after 10 a.m. or 7 p.m., it just isn’t that easy.

So to avoid crowding underground, we’ll have to again listen to the mayor. “If you have the option of walking to work or taking a bike to work,” he said, “please do.” That, of course, would be far easier and safer had the mayor shown a true commitment to building out a bike lane network or if the mayor had immediately ordered DOT to implement temporary bike priority lanes covering popular commuting routes. It took until Thursday night for the mayor to order city workers to stay at home or come in later, a move that should remove around 100,000 people from the subways at rush hour. This should have happened on Sunday, but better now than later.

Do you have anything to comfort us through this stressful time?

Absolutely. The Cardvaark is always here for you.

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7 comments

Larry Penner March 13, 2020 - 7:39 am

Everyone has known for decades that the subway, bus, commuter rail and ferries are a Petri dish for catching a cold, the flu or other communicable diseases. The rise of a growing homeless population, who ride our subways and live at stations for hours on end have made matters worse. Take a walk around Penn Station and see for yourself. They clearly have little if any ability to maintain personal hygiene. Transit workers deep cleaning the entire system using an “enhanced daily cleaning procedure,” or scrub strategy including bleach and hospital grade disinfectant should have been the norm for years. Between homeless on board and rush hour standing room only crowds, they need to be thoroughly cleaned on a 24 hour basis. The odds increase for spreading a communicable disease when you are trapped on a crowded bus or subway for long periods of time. It should not have taken the potential spread of the corona virus for the MTA to properly clean equipment and stations. Safety and security of the riding public should always be the number one priority.

(Larry Penner — transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

Reply
John March 13, 2020 - 2:16 pm

Once again, another person going after the vulnerable homeless population and tying it to this pandemic spread. Viruses don’t discriminate, don’t care what color you are, how much money you make, or whether or not you’ve got a roof over your head. Not sure if you heard, but New Rochelle’s patient zero was a wealthy white lawyer with presumably very good hygiene.

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Thomas Graves March 15, 2020 - 12:55 am

Larry’s point is totally valid. The increasing numbers of filthy mentally ill people shitting and pissing all over the subway system is a source of disease – full stop. Only in New York would you have people defending – even ‘celebrating’ this absurdity. Deep-cleaning should have been the order of the day all along. Coronavirus exacerbates the situation. The people who are “vulnerable” are the regular fare-paying customers who have to endure the open sewer that is the NYC subway on a daily basis.

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SEAN March 16, 2020 - 3:48 pm

Larry’s point is totally valid. The increasing numbers of filthy mentally ill people shitting and pissing all over the subway system is a source of disease – full stop. Only in New York would you have people defending – even ‘celebrating’ this absurdity.

Nobody is defending or celebrating this absurdity, what’s the matter with you!

Deep-cleaning should have been the order of the day all along. Well duh, of course it should have been, but that was then & this is now.

Coronavirus exacerbates the situation. The people who are “vulnerable” are the regular fare-paying customers who have to endure the open sewer that is the NYC subway on a daily basis.

You know, playing one group against another accomplishes absolutely nothing & remember nobody is putting a gun at your temples and ordering you to ride the trains. So take your smug attitude elsewhere & don’t come back until you learn something called empathy.

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Larry Littlefield March 13, 2020 - 11:27 am

They could increase off peak service and cut peak service.

They could also go Chapter 11. I’ll say it again, those under the age of 60 have very limited moral obligation to those debt and pension underfunding liabilities. Those under the age of 40 have none.

We didn’t make the decisions, or get many of the past benefits. Those who started riding transit regularly after 2004 missed the era of radically lower fares. Those who were already long retired in 2000 got much of the benefit of the big pension increase that year. As for taxpayer support for the MTA, the total state and local tax burden is already higher, as a share of the income of city residents, than before Pataki and Giuliani cut taxes.

The benefits went to the political/union class, and those cashing in and moving out. The interest on those bonds, and those pensions, are exempt from NY State and NYC income taxes.

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Larry Littlefield March 14, 2020 - 9:21 am

“All subways, commuter rail cars and buses are cleaned at terminals, and the entire rolling stock is disinfected every 72 hours.”

I’ve read the virus can stay alive on metal surfaces for 72 hours. If so, they are cleaning the metal at the very moment when it no longer makes a difference.

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Adirondacker12800 March 14, 2020 - 12:43 pm

Viruses don’t remain viable in the general environment that long.

Reply

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