The Subway is Probably not Why New York is a Disaster Zone

New York is the capital of the coronavirus pandemic, with around 110,000 confirmed cases and 10,000 confirmed deaths citywide, and perhaps the same number across its suburbs. There must be many reasons why this is so; one possibility that people have raised is infection from crowded subways, so far without much evidence. Two days ago, MIT economist Jeffrey Harris wrote a paper claiming that the subways did in fact seed the Covid-19 epidemic in New York, but the paper cites no evidence. Sadly, some people have been citing the paper as a serious argument, which it isn’t; the purpose of this post is to explain what is wrong with the paper.

New York and other subways

In multiple other countries, one cannot see the transit cities in the virus infection rates. In Germany the rates in the largest cities are collectively the same as in the rest of the country. In South Korea, the infection is centered on Daegu; Seoul’s density and high transit usage are compatible with an infection rate of about 700 in a city of 9.5 million, about 1.5 orders of magnitude less per capita than in most Western countries and 2.5 orders of magnitude less than in New York. In Taipei, the MRT remains crowded, with weekday ridership in February and March down by 15-16%. In Italy, car usage is high outside a handful of very large cities like Milan, and Milan’s infection rate isn’t high by the standards of the rest of Lombardy.

However, rest-of-world evidence does not mean that the New York City Subway is safe. The Taipei MRT has mandatory mask usage and very frequent cleaning. German U- and S-Bahn networks are a lot dirtier than anything I’ve seen in Asia, but much cleaner than anything I’ve seen in New York, and also have much less peak crowding than New York. New York uniquely has turnstiles requiring pushing with one’s hands or bodies, and the only other city I know of with such fare barriers is Paris, whose infection rates are far below New York’s but still high by French standards.

So the question is not whether rapid transit systems are inherently unsafe for riders, which they are not. It’s whether New York, with all of its repeated failings killing tens of workers from exposure to the virus, has an unsafe rapid transit system. Nonetheless, the answer appears to be negative: no evidence exists that the subway is leading to higher infection rates, and the paper does not introduce any.

What’s in the paper?

A lot of rhetoric and a lot of lampshade hanging about the lack of natural experiments.

But when it comes to hard evidence, the paper makes two quantitative claims. The first is in figure 3: Manhattan had both the least increase in infections in the 3/13-4/7 period, equivalent to a doubling period of 20 days whereas the other boroughs ranged between 9.5 and 14, and also the largest decrease in subway entries in the 3/2-16 period, 65% whereas the other boroughs ranged between 33% and 56%.

The second is a series of maps showing per capita infection levels by zip code, similar to the one here. The paper also overlays a partial subway map and asserts that the map shows that there is correlation of infection rates along specific subway routes, for example the 7, as people spread the disease along the line.

I will address the second claim first, regarding line-level analysis, and then the first, regarding the borough-level difference-in-differences analysis; neither is even remotely correct.

Can you see the subway on an infection map?

Here is a static version of the infection map by zip code:

This is cases for 1,000 people – note that my post about Germany looks at rates per 10,000 people, so the range in New York is consistently about an order of magnitude worse than in Germany. The map shows high rates in Eastern Queens, the North Bronx, and Staten Island, hardly places with high public transportation ridership. The rates in Manhattan and the inner parts of Brooklyn are on the low side.

There are no ribbons of red matching any subway line – there are clumps and clusters, as in Southern Brooklyn in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and in Central Queens around Corona and East Elmhurst. There is imperfect but noticeable correlation with income – working-class areas have higher infection rates, perhaps because they have higher rates at which people are required to still show up to work, where they can be infected. East Asian neighborhoods have lower rates, like Flushing and environs, or to some extent Sunset Park; Asians are infected at noticeably lower rates than others in New York and perhaps in the rest of the Western world, perhaps because they took news in China more seriously, began practicing social distancing earlier, and wear masks at higher rates. There are many correlates, none of which looks like it has anything to do with using the public transportation network.

What’s more, the paper is not making any quantitative argument why the graph shows correlation with subway usage. It shows the graph with some lines depicted, often misnamed, for example the Queens Boulevard Line is called Sixth Avenue Local, leading to a discussion about higher infection rates on local trains than on express trains where in fact the F runs express in Queens. But it does not engage in any analysis of rates of subway usage or changes therein, or in infection rates. The reader is supposed to eyeball the graph and immediately agree with the author’s conclusion, where there is no reason to do so.

Manhattan confounders

The claim about Manhattan is the only real quantitative claim in the paper. Unlike the zip code analysis, the borough analysis does make some statistical argument: Manhattan had larger reduction in subway usage than the rest of the city and also a slower infection rate. However, this argument relies on an N of 2. Among the other boroughs, there is no such correlation. The argument is then purely about Manhattan vs. the rest of the city. This is incorrect for so many reasons:

  1. Manhattan is the highest-income borough, with many people who can work from home. If they’re not getting infected, it could be from not commuting as much, but just as well from not getting the virus at work as much.
  2. The Manhattan subway stops are often job centers, so the decline in ridership there reflects a citywide decline. A Manhattanite who stops taking the subway is seen as two fewer turnstile entries in Manhattan, whereas a New Yorker from the rest of the city who does the same is likely to be seen as one fewer Outer Borough entry and one fewer Manhattan entry.
  3. Many Manhattanites left the city to shelter elsewhere, as seen in trash collection data.
  4. Manhattan’s per capita subway usage is probably higher than that of the rest of the city counting discretionary trips, so 65% off the usual ridership in Manhattan may still be higher per capita than 56% off in Brooklyn or 47% in Queens. (But this is false on the level of commuting, where Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn all have 60% mode share.)

Does the paper have any value?

No.

I have heard people on Twitter claim that correlation is not causation. This argument is too generous to the paper, which has not shown any correlation at all, since the only quantitative point it makes has an N of 2 and plenty of confounders.

For comparison, my analysis of metro construction costs has an effective N of about 40, since different subway  projects in the same country tend to have similar costs with few exceptions (such as New York’s extreme-even-for-America costs), and I consider 40 to be low enough that Eric Goldwyn and I must use qualitative methods and delve deep into several case studies before we can confidently draw conclusions. The paper instead draws strong conclusions, even including detailed ones like the point the paper tries to make about local trains being more dangerous than express trains, from an N of 2; it’s irresponsible.

But what about the workers?

A large and growing number of New York City Transit workers have succumbed to the virus. The current count is close to the citywide death toll, but transportation workers are by definition all healthy enough to be working, whereas citywide (and worldwide) the dead are disproportionately old or have comorbidities like heart disease. Echoing the union’s demands for better protection, Andy Byford had unkind words to say about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appointees in charge of the system, MTA chair Pat Foye and acting NYCT chair Sarah Feinberg.

However, this is not the same as infection among passengers. The dead include workers who are in close proximity to passengers on crowded vehicles, such as bus drivers, but also ones who are not, such as train operators, maintenance workers, and cleaners. Train cleaners have to remove contaminated trash from the platforms and vehicles without any protective equipment; NYCT not only didn’t supply workers with protective equipment, but also prohibited them from wearing masks on the job even if they’d procured them privately. Contamination at work is not the same as contamination during travel.

So, should people avoid public transportation in New York?

Absolutely not.

If the best attempt to provide evidence that riding the subway is a health hazard in a pandemic is this paper, then that by itself is evidence that there is no health hazard. This is true even given New York City Transit’s current level of dirt, though perhaps not given its pre-crisis peak crowding level. Social distancing is reducing overall travel and this is good, not necessarily because travel is hazardous, but mostly because the destination is often a crowded place with plenty of opportunity for person-to-person infection.

In preparation for going back to normal, the current level of cleanliness is not acceptable. The state should make sure people have access to masks, even if they’re ordinary ones rather than N95 ones, and mandate their usage in crowded places including the subway once they are available. It should invest far more in cleaning public spaces, including the subway, to the highest standards seen in the rich countries of Asia. It should certainly do much more to protect the workers, who face more serious hazards than the riders. But it should not discourage people who are traveling from doing so by train.

78 comments

  1. Benjamin Turon

    Good post, very interesting. New York State government has already ordered everyone to wear masks in public, and for employers (including the state government) to supply them to their employees. The most dangerous places seem to be workplaces, homes, and hospitals. The more exposure to the virus to more likely one is to get infected and sick. Transit workers might not be primarily getting sick on the bus or on trains, but in the break rooms, locker rooms, and at home. Frequent cleaning of surfaces, good ventilation, and universal wearing of masks might go a long way in reducing the odds of being infected in public places.

    In the old navy a clean ship was seen as a healthy ship — so perhaps Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty was on to something, with all that scrubbing of the decks. Given the choice between being in a life boat with Commander Bligh (later Admiral, served under Nelson) or on the Queen Mary with President Trump, I go with the captain in a heartbeat!

    NEW YORK TIMES — New York Orders Residents to Wear Masks in Public

    • Alon Levy

      Congratulations, Governor Cuomo, it took you until the middle of April to require mask usage, after weeks of forbidding MTA workers to wear masks on the job. Resign immediately, abandon politics, and let a person of merit take your place.

      • adirondacker12800

        And the governor of South Dakota still isn’t sure that staying at home is something she has to declare a good idea not just a suggestion. But then South Dakota is far away from Ninth Avenue, someplace past the place cheap direct flights stop versus non-stops, … Chicago?.. on their way to important places.

      • Benjamin Turon

        On mask usage, since mid-January there has been a cascade of media article after media article, certified medical expert after certified medical expert in the USA, all stating that wearing dust masks or face coverings did little to no good. The fact mask wearing was common in East Asia was discounted as a cultural quirk. Hospitals and doctors ordered staff not wear masks outside the wards of infected patients. I personally doubted this conventional and official wisdom in the US given that evidence that East Asia had far fewer cases then the West, so there must be something to it, most likely keeping infected people from spreading it effectively.

        The recent recommendation from the CDC, state, and local authorities this month now mandating that all people wear masks or a face-covering when in a public place, is a major about-face. Search the media online, many doctors still opposed it, or call it unnecessary. Conservative politicians and pundits (Wall Street Journal & Fox News) are pushing Sweden as the model to following in criticizing the response in most American states.

        Its easy to criticism the USA on mask wearing, but it a very alien concept that has gotten a lot of resistance and ridicule from the regular people on the street or at work… That is until your in the heat of a pandemic and all the toilet paper has disappeared into a few people’s basements and garages. I have only visited the local grocery store and convenience shop like maybe 5 times in the last four weeks, but wearing masks was becoming increasingly common.

        • Alon Levy

          I love how Sweden, probably the foreign country that is most consistently similar to one political faction in the US (i.e. liberals), is suddenly a conservative example to follow over its lack of lockdown. It’s a good example of the process of looking for foreign countries the way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support, not illumination. Imitating a foreign example should be for one of two reasons: you already think it’s a good model and therefore useful to learn from, or you notice it succeed in something. You can also combine these, e.g. I see high transit usage in Switzerland and therefore think it’s a good model for transit in general and then propose learning details from there (e.g. how to run POP). And, well, American conservatives have nothing but scorn for Sweden, nor is Sweden’s infection rate low (and its death rate is on the high side, though that might be that it does postmortems and most other countries don’t); even its economy is projected to be in recession this year due to the virus, so it’s not like its lack of lockdown is a smashing economic success.

          I criticize the US on mask wearing because a lot of ingredients for understanding what was to be done were already present. In February, when people thought the virus was just for Asians and there was anti-East Asian violence, liberal leaders like Pelosi publicly tried to defuse matters, call out racism, and tell people not to be afraid of Chinatown. It would not have been a big leap to then assert based on low infection rates in Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong that masks were good and non-Asians should learn from East Asians on that instead of beating up Chinese and people while yelling “virus” at them.

          • RossB

            The problem in the U. S. was their attitude towards masks. There are masks, and then there are masks. The focus from the beginning was on masks that are ideal — that would protect the wearer as well as everyone else. Even when the President was saying not to worry, demand rose for N95 masks to the point where you simply couldn’t get one. They weren’t available (similar to ventilators a while later). They explicitly told people *not* to buy them, so that people who really need them (nurses and doctors) would have them (Ain’t unfettered capitalism grand?). This lead people to essentially give up. “Darn, I would love to have a mask, but they aren’t available”.

            Then there was the focus on symptoms. To this day, there is a focus on symptoms. My wife went in to the optometrist and they took her temperature. Better than nothing, I suppose, but this disease is not being spread by people who are kinda sick, but refuse to stay home. It is being spread by people who have no symptoms at all. None. This means that folks who would of course wear a mask if they were sick (to protect others), figure they are completely healthy, and since the mask won’t protect them, what’s the point?

            It wasn’t until recently that authorities officially came out and said yes, wearing a mask is likely good overall. But even then, it is controversial. If you’ve ever seen people mess around with their mask in a grocery store, you can see why. They pick up a tomato, put it down, adjust their mask (touching their mouth in the process) and then it is off to the broccoli. The point being, it gets complicated, and saying “wear a mask” is easy, and likely a good idea, but you really need to do it right. Aseptic technique is not obvious. There is a reason why it is taught in school, and not just something you pick up, like tying your shoes, or using the right fork. Of course we could all at least learn the basics, but when there are literally YouTube videos on how to wash your hands, I wouldn’t set my expectations too high.

          • Herbert

            “Nirvana fallacy” is surprisingly common on the American political right.

            If the best outcome imaginable is unattainable, that doesn’t mean one should stop trying…

  2. adirondacker12800

    In the old navy a clean ship was seen as a healthy ship — so perhaps Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty was on to something, with all that scrubbing of the decks.
    The exterior ones would likely stay moderately clean all by themselves. All that salt spray, rain and sunshine. But then I don’t know how much fish guts got spewed on them either. I suspect there was some. It didn’t do much for the scurvy.

      • adirondacker12800

        Apparently. I got as far as finding the crew list in Wikipedia and one of the crew member was not a loyalist or a mutineer because he was logged as dying of scurvy early.

      • michaelrjames

        Captain James Cook, though he was a mere lieutenant at the time, “discovered” Australia and charted the Southern Ocean, NZ and south Pacific 1766-1779. He was a remarkable navigator and map maker but some also attribute his success in the longest voyages of discovery ever undertaken to his being the first to cure that dietary problem. It was when British sailors became known as Limeys–because of the limes they carried and were obliged to eat.

          • michaelrjames

            I was going to be smartarsed and say try expecting a bunch of Limeys sailors to eat that every day, but :

            Captain James Cook always took a store of sauerkraut on his sea voyages, since experience had taught him it prevented scurvy.[14][15]

            In fact, have we discovered the German secret to their low covid-19 CFR? And the Koreans with their Kimchi? Who’s going to tell Trump ….

            Many health benefits have been claimed for sauerkraut:
            –It is a high source of vitamins C and K;[27] the fermentation process increases the bioavailability of nutrients rendering sauerkraut even more nutritious than the original cabbage.[28] It is also low in calories and high in calcium and magnesium, and it is a very good source of dietary fiber, folate, iron, potassium, copper and manganese.[27]
            –If unpasteurized and uncooked, sauerkraut also contains live lactobacilli and beneficial microbes and is rich in enzymes. Fiber and probiotics improve digestion and promote the growth of healthy bowel flora, protecting against many diseases of the digestive tract.[28][29]
            –During the American Civil War, the physician John Jay Terrell (1829–1922)[30] was able to successfully reduce the death rate from disease among prisoners of war; he attributed this to feeding his patients raw sauerkraut.[31]
            –Sauerkraut and its juice is a time-honored folk remedy for canker sores. The treatment is to rinse the mouth with sauerkraut juice for about 30 seconds several times a day, or place a wad of sauerkraut against the affected area for a minute or so before chewing and swallowing the sauerkraut.[32]
            –In 2002, the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry reported that Finnish researchers found the isothiocyanates produced in sauerkraut fermentation inhibit the growth of cancer cells in test tube and animal studies.[33] A Polish study in 2010 concluded that “induction of the key detoxifying enzymes by cabbage juices, particularly sauerkraut, may be responsible for their chemopreventive activity demonstrated by epidemiological studies and in animal models”.[34][35][36][37][38][39][40][41]
            –Sauerkraut is high in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, both associated with preserving ocular health.[42]

        • Benjamin Turon

          When he was in command of HMS Bounty (a converted merchant vessel) William Bligh, was actually only a lieutenant, he would rise to the rank of admiral during the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Nelson spoke highly of him. A lieutenant would often command smaller vessels, with the rank of commander being appropriate for sloops of war and smaller frigates (aka equivalent of 20th Century destroyers/cruisers) and the rank of captain for larger frigates (cruisers) and ships-of-the-line (battleships/carriers).

          The first book on the mutiny was actually written by Bligh himself, basically his edited journal of the voyage on the Bounty and the 3000 mile, 47-day voyage in a small boat to Timor in the Dutch East Indies after the mutiny. According to contemporary sources Bligh was a very good captain who was light on discipline (for the time) and was conscientious on the health of his crew. He had sailed with James Cook (who praised him) and turning the voyage of the Bounty to the South Pacific enacted policies to improve the nutrition and physical health of the crew, as advocated by Captain Cook. This is in stark contrast of the fictitious Captain Bligh of later novels and films.

          The evidence is that Bligh was a a scientific-minded man, with some character flaws, including a reputation as being a firm disciplinarian, even though he reportedly employed corporal punishment (flogging) far less frequently than other ship commanders. The popular caricature of him has a cruel and even sadistic ship’s captain had its origins in the relatives of the mutineers, aided by how cruel naval life was in the Royal Navy during the 18th and 19th centuries. That is why there was so many British deserters to the American navy!

          I would be all for William Bligh as governor of New York State (or head of the MTA), but his one try at that high post in New South Wales ended with him under house arrest after he angered the colonists by trying to shut down the rum trade and profiteering by government officials and wealthy private citizens. Clearly he was not a politician.

      • Alon Levy

        I thought it introduced it early – there’s a longform somewhere, I think in the New Yorker, about how it learned and then forgot that lemon was a cure for scurvy.

        • michaelrjames

          I vaguely recall something about that.
          The thing is that if sailors start healthy and well-fed before they leave, and some foods last long enough, deficiency is not going to be manifested except on very long journeys–and perhaps journeys in hot climate which spoils the food stores quicker. With only some crew suffering, it made cause and effect difficult to identify.
          All the highest vitC content foods spoil the fastest. In fact with potatoes and onions having low but useful amounts and store the best, so it probably afflicted certain people who chose not to eat some of these staples. If you were a meat & potatoes person you’d be ok, but if meat only you could be in trouble.

          • Benjamin Turon

            When I visited the USS Constellation (last purpose large sailing warship built in the USN) in Baltimore, the ship’s sickbay in the bow had a lot on how the US Navy during the 19th century advanced the science and practice of medicine and sanitation. The modern federal US Health Service was spun-off and evolved from the navy, which is why they are a uniformed service with navy ranks and uniforms.

  3. Lee Ratner

    The facts don’t matter. Anti-urbaists and anti-transit people are going to use this for their political advantage.

    • Alon Levy

      The facts didn’t matter to Cuomo when he stripped Byford of his powers and then appointed Sarah Feinberg after Byford resigned, and scores-and-counting NYCT workers are dead. But as I said a month ago, it’s not WW2; if it were thousands and not scores, the facts would have to matter.

      • Herbert

        Let’s hope it never comes to that. We’re still talking about human lives here…

      • RossB

        It is shocking to me how many people think that Cuomo is good at his job. There are people saying “shucks, too bad the primary is over — I wish we had Cuomo”. There are those saying “Why did Biden commit to a woman? Now he can’t pick the obvious choice: Cuomo”. There is a reason why he didn’t run, and three other governor did (all of which, by the way, have not surprisingly handled this crisis better”. Cuomo gives a good speech. Of course he does — he learned from his daddy. But he isn’t very smart, and doesn’t work well with others. If the son of a politician is a great speaker, but otherwise not exceptional, the general rule of thumb is that they are terrible. The opposite appears to be true as well. Jeb Bush and Al Gore were clumsy, uncomfortable politicians, but good at actually governing. George W. Bush and Andrew Cuomo are smooth, sweet talking politicians, but they suck.

        • adirondacker12800

          George W. Bush, 43, who was infamous for his malapropism and would occasionally get a glazed look in his eyes until his tongue reconnected, a smooth talker? Really?

          • Herbert

            Compared to Gore, G.W. Bush was much more popular with his base. Also compared to his dad and his brother…

          • adirondacker12800

            Cofefe! It’s doesn’t matter to the base, whoever it is they slavish follow.

          • RossB

            The first time I saw George W. Bush was on C-Span, greeting factory workers. Most people (outside of Texas) hadn’t seen him. I was terrified. He had all the charm that his father lacked. He was comfortable in his own skin, as they say. Another term used was “likable” or a “guy you want to have a beer with”. Bush had this (and still has this) in spades.

            Unlike his brother, he was always focused on the political, while his brother focused on policy. That is how we was able to secure his party’s support — by securing the religious right and fans of Reaganomics (a theory his dad once called “Voodoo Economics”).

            No, he wasn’t articulate (at least later in his career) and he wasn’t the fastest thinker. It didn’t matter. He was smooth, and charming, and projected honesty, sincerity and comfort (if not intelligence) — key parts to being a modern American politician.

            Gore was actually very good at “the big speech”. If times got tough, Gore was the stronger politician. But for the one-on-one chit-chat that dominates American politics these days, he was terrible. In terms of political skills, they were opposites — which makes it interesting since they had similar upbringings and crossed paths in a very dramatic way.

          • adirondacker12800

            The idiot son usually is quite genial. Has to get through life somehow. Most of them are genial enough to hire and keep good advisers. At least Dubya was genial, aware that there are social conventions and let reality seep through. Or at least had advisers who let reality seep through. He did soften them up to think Sarah Palin was great. The Donald overlaps a bit into the New England-y prep school Ivy League orbit himself.
            Hillary is great at the big speech too. There were two kind of Hillary Derangement syndrome in 2008 and again in 2016. The ones who hated her and thought she changed her hairstyle to hide the horns she hadn’t had time to get trimmed, wore pants suits because her hooves were giving her trouble and as a hobby ran a combined porn/sex slave ring out of a the basement of a pizza parlor that doesn’t have a basement. Like the Secretary of State has time for that kind of hobby, any Secretary of State.
            And Democrats who thought there weren’t people who think she has horns and hooves and could be convinced to vote for her. On another level I though she was a bad candidate because after eight years of hearing about Kenyan birthplaces, death panels etc. we’d be distracted for 8 years about Bill having trouble keeping his pants zipped and administrative/clerical errors. We did during the campaign, didn’t we?
            We didn’t know about the guy who also had it and was manipulating both of ours for a third kind of Hilllary Derangement syndrome.

          • RossB

            Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate in large part because people didn’t want to have a beer with her. In contrast, her husband (who had made many more mistakes, including his share of scandals) was very personable. It really is crazy how often the race comes down to that, but it is probably the single biggest factor in most American presidential elections.

          • adirondacker12800

            You do lead a sheltered life. There are people who foam at the mouth and go into long rants about a list of debunked conspiracy theories at the mention of her name. When anyone points out that there is no evidence of it, they just claim that is proof of how clever it all is and so well concealed.

          • Alon Levy

            Are you telling me Hillary did not personally bring the Wuhan virus to America in order to make Trump look bad?

  4. James S

    This map of infections in New Jersey is also relevant.

    If you were to map the NJ Transit rail lines, you’d see very little linkage. Bergen County, the top right of map, has infamously poor rail connections even though its so close to Manhattan.

    • Herbert

      Unfortunately the anti transit crowd has a huge overlap with the facts don’t matter crowd…

    • adirondacker12800

      If it’s not obvious the heavy borders are county borders and the small subdivisions are municipalities of some sort. I see small population size anomalies. The people Bergen county don’t take the train because the train sucks more than the bus, they take the bus to get to Manhattan.

  5. Herbert

    You got an “even” with two e in there somewhere.

    On a totally unrelated note, the CSU has conquered the mayoral post in Nuremberg and they like to talk about subway expansions. Is there any expansion you’d advise them to build?

    • adirondacker12800

      … to spell “even” correctly takes two “e”s. Computers are great at finding stuff like that. The misspelling with a double “e” is in the next to last sentence of the section sub titled “But what about the workers?”

      • Herbert

        Yes, “Pfeiffer mit drei f”. I meant an extra e, making the grand total three…

          • Herbert

            Because then the Swiss wouldn’t have understood a thing.

            Early editions of Luther’s translations contained a glossary of terms uncommon in certain parts of the Germanies… The wide spread of his works made that unnecessary for later editions

  6. daniel

    I guess Harris is an MD as well as a PhD in Econ. The paper is like sophomore-level though. The transit connection you can argue is that those red clusters in Queens, Staten and the Bronx are related to long commutes with multiple transfers, so more opportunities to receive. He does not argue that that I can tell but it’s sort of plausible. My uninformed read on them is that they index to presence of police residences, since we know that a lot of police are infected. But I’m not a public health guy and not a geographer, and am basing that mostly on like every third guy I went to high school with in Staten Island being a cop. Anything using a map of zip codes should be repudiated though because zip codes don’t map to population or neighborhood. You get a visual representation that is not accurate to anything. But you can look at the colors and make up various scenarios, like I just did, twice, above.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      Yes, ZIP codes are not much use in planning. My son’s college alma mater is in a zone that was almost spot on the Denver averages. In reality it was in a grid block neighborhood with some walk distance services and better bus service than sprawl areas. The zone, however, includes a flood plain with random scrapyards, mobile home sites, country estates, strip clubs, and fireworks sales in a neighboring county where the planning staff turned over at an alarming rate.

      I dug into this when my church was in a redevelopment process and I discovered that consultants were charging $$$ for demographic info that was just regurgitated ZIPs. We eventually found a good analysis process that we could follow ourselves.

      • Herbert

        Consultants overcharging is kinda a theme here…

        Maybe I should go into consulting… If Vieregg Rößler can do it without relevant expertise…

      • adirondacker12800

        There can be anomalies. The map of New Jersey in another thread… the dark blue blob in Sussex County ( the northern most county that could also be described as the northwestern most ) is likely a large nursing home that had a problem. The report I read about it on CNN says “Andover” There is an Andover Borough and an Andover Township. Two different municipalities that very likely share some services and “Andover police” is probably one they share. I’m not going to check. “South Orange” in Essex County is officially the Township of South Orange Village, which can be confusing, it is lighter. The dormitories for Seton Hall University are in South Orange and they were likely evacuated abruptly in March. Well … I speculate in March, I can’t find anything definitive. Whatever is going on with dorm residents is likely to be reported as being where they are temporarily residing.

        in 2012 or 2013 there were all sorts of maps floating around that incorrectly display Census Data. There was one that had a tract in Albany New York, according to how a that particular map was interpreting things, that is extraordinarily densely populated. It’s all state office building where nobody lives but does have the head office for SUNY’s housing department….. It’s misreported, from that map’s viewpoint, dorm residents… Zip codes can be interesting. Last time this was interesting to me there are zip codes in Arkansas that should be in Texas but the main post office for Texarkana Texas and Texarkana Arkansas is in Texas so they all have Texas zip codes. In my town there is a large chunk where the mailing address for the mail box at the end of the driveway is the next town over but the service address for things like electricity, telecom is the same number with the same street name but in this town…. My electricity comes into the back of house from a different street. The address for the lots on either side of that street, where the pole is that I’m connected to, aren’t on that street…

  7. RossB

    >> Manhattan had larger reduction in subway usage than the rest of the city and also a slower infection rate.

    Wait a second. That is the argument? Seriously?

    First of all, the *reduction* is largely meaningless. If transit itself is a major vector, then what matters is how many people are using it. Let’s assume we had an epidemic spread by pigeons. Does it matter if the pigeon population went down in one neighborhood, if there were still twice as many pigeons there? Of course not.

    Second, they are missing the big picture here. Initially, New York officials (like Trump) did very little to address the virus. Thus it was up to individuals to handle things. Some people started doing what they were supposed to — being socially distant, wearing masks, using gloves, ordering things online, etc. — some people didn’t. One of those things — staying at home — would be reflected in transit usage. In other words, the researchers have it all backwards. It isn’t that transit use is what caused the spread, it is that reduced transit use is an indicator that people were taking the virus seriously. This would be especially true if you were dealing with an area (Manhattan) where people often have no other way of getting around. Reduced transit use doesn’t mean they were driving their own cars (a strong possibility for Staten Island) but rather, hunkered down.

    My guess is you could find other “indicator” habits. For example, jewelry purchases. This is clearly a luxury item, and after Valentine’s day, there would be no reason for numbers to increase or decrease. But my guess is the numbers decreased faster in Manhattan than they did in Staten Island. Does this mean that jewelry stores were a major vector? Of course not. It simply meant that people in Manhattan took the situation a little more seriously early on than did people in Staten Island.

    Am I missing something?

  8. Eric

    Totally off topic: would you be interested in crayoning a metro system for Cairo? I’d like to see what you come up with – Cairo seems to me unique in the world for the following reasons:
    – Third world megacity with busy but insufficient existing metro system (with the highest ridership per km of any metro in the world)
    – The divide between the extremely dense core city, and the various lower-density suburbs that are being built in the desert
    – The pyramids as an international tourist destination on the city’s edge

      • Eric

        Cool. My ideas were along the lines of:
        – In the short term, build an elevated line above the entire ring road (road 516)
        – In the long term, put a dense metro network within the city proper, and overlay it with a suburban metro to the edge cities.

  9. Reedman Bassoon

    On Friday, 17 April, Stanford researchers released their results and analysis from 3300 antibody tests of random people in Santa Clara County recruited off Facebook in early April. Their conclusion — the actual virus infection rate is 50 to 85 times higher than the reported infection rate. The “therefore” conclusion is the actual virus mortality rate is much much lower than what is reported. The medical community is questioning everything about the study and its conclusions.

    • Eric

      Your last line is key. One study doesn’t prove anything in medicine, and this appears to be a weak study.

    • Herbert

      To my knowledge we do not yet have antibody tests which can separate between Covid19 antibodies and antibodies against other Coronaviruses. Remember roughly 10% of “colds” are caused by Coronaviruses, not Rhinoviruses (the cause of most colds)

    • michaelrjames

      Seems highly unlikely. The actual result was that they found 50 positives in the 3,300 screened which is 1.5%. No one knows the true false positive rate of the assay but apparently this level is not unheard of (in early assays not fully certified). In the UK they had to scrap their plan for wide serology tests because the assay was failing too much (false negatives): they had to junk millions of manufactured tests. There is general concern that screening for antibodies for this virus may be intrinsically unreliable.
      Also, no one thinks recruiting people off FB is truly random, ie. an ascertainment bias could be adding to the problem.
      So they used these dodgy figures to extrapolate to the whole population of Santa Clara (about 2m) to compare to the county’s official test data (based on DNA tests mostly restricted to people showing clinical signs). And when extrapolated to NYC it simply doesn’t make sense.

      The best estimate still remains the South Korean one of 0.65% which still could be an overestimate due to asymptomatic individuals but not by that much.

      A NIH study of 10,000 is underway and a UC Berkeley one of 5,000. Most people will wait for those to report before coming to conclusions. Germany has announced an ambitious testing of all its population … but no timetable.
      ………………………
      Herbert, I don’t think that can possibly be correct. Antibodies are exquisitely selective and specific. It’s their raison d’etre. And if not, then we would be immunised against SARS-CoV-2 by infection with any old coronavirus. Plus any lab studying these things would have their panel of known coronaviruses (responsible for some 15% of the common cold) and any cross reactivity would immediately eliminate that antibody as useless for the purpose.

    • Reedman Bassoon

      Today, LA County announced the results of antibody testing done by USC and the LA Dept of Public Health on 863 people. LA says that actual infection rates are 28 to 55 times higher than those reported. They used tests from Premier Biotech, a Minneapolis-based company. The results, if correct, say the fatality rate is much lower than originally thought.

      On Sunday, NY Gov Cuomo said the FDA gave approval for the states’ antibody test. The state will conduct “thousands” of tests this week. The antibody tests will give the state its “first true snapshot” of how many people in the state have been infected with Covid-19, he said.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        Today, 23 April, Cuomo announced the results of 3000 antibody tests in New York State. Estimate is 3.4% of upstate NY adults have had corona, which is consistent with the Stanford and USC antibody studies. The big news is the estimate that 14% of the adults in the state have had corona (~1 million people), and estimate that 21% of adults in NY City have been exposed.

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  13. Mark

    Being a transit proponent myself, i think this is wrong to put your head in the sand and ignore the evidence. You need to ask yourself, so _why_ NY is so much worse than every other city. People work in every other city in america.

    The fraciton of people using transit *is* definitely one of the biggest differences. Do you see others? Because I don’t. And magic thinking is not helpful. Work is by comparison much more benign environment than subway – where you are constantly exposed to large number of people in close proximity for extended period of time.

    It doesn’t make transit undersirable, but without knowing that we can’t make it work better!

    For isntance, the article does bring a bunch of valid points of how NYC government screwed up by _reducing_ frequency of subways etc. Instead they should have doubled and tripled.

    • Alon Levy

      Okay, so you have an N = 2 analysis comparing New York with the rest of the US. Let’s recount all the special features of New York:

      1. It has high transit usage and high population density.
      2. It has a governor and mayor who do not work together and constantly undermine each other to the detriment of the fiefs that they govern.
      3. It has trash on the street.
      4. Large numbers of people do not own washing machines and therefore have to go to laundromats.
      5. It has small, cramped supermarkets.
      6. Its government believes the city is so special it can’t learn from other places.
      7. It has very strong travel ties to Europe, from which the second wave of the virus has been seeded.
      8. It has high economic inequality.
      9. It has high numbers of Haredi Jews.

      Why does explanation #1 have to be the most important? It doesn’t hold up in so many other countries, even as some of the others might, e.g. in Israel as of about 2 weeks ago half the hospitalized coronavirus patients were Haredi even though Haredis are only about 10% of the population and a much lower share of the elderly population, and likewise in New York Borough Park had a big cluster and Rockland County has the highest per capita infection rate in the region.

      • Tonami Playman

        Do you happen to have an idea why Haredi Jews are such disproportionately high infection rate compared to other groups?

        • Alon Levy

          They don’t interact with the state directly but via intermediaries, like rabbis and political operatives, who are trained to mistrust science and have little secular education. If some of these operatives choose to ignore social distancing regulations, their segment of the community listens to them and keeps praying together in close quarters.

          • adirondacker12800

            Kiyras Joel provides a handy demographics profile. The household size is roughly twice the size of the US average? As far as know a minyan is a matter of participation, on some level, not that it has to be inside a building close together. … the first thing you build is mikvah, not a synagogue. Don’t look at me for something more specific, I make a good shabbos goy.

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  15. Tonami Playman

    More Anti- transit propaganda.


    https://thefederalist.com/2020/04/22/how-public-transit-makes-the-nation-more-vulnerable-to-disasters-like-covid-19/

    The good news is we already have such a system — and it’s not urban transit. The bad news is that many, including the transit lobby, would like to dismantle that system. The system, of course, is motor vehicles and highways, possibly the most resilient transportation structure ever devised.

    Anyway it’s from Randal O’Toole and he did not disappoint.

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  21. G

    You didn’t look at your map very well.
    A New Yorker knows that no one lives in Midtown/Downtown Manhattan and no one lives at JFK airport. Without realizing it, you proved the subway is the link between working places and living places.

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