Is the United States Giving Up on Public Transportation?

In the last week or two, I have seen a worrying trend in multiple North American cities: transit managers and advocates who call for measures to reduce the number of people riding public transportation, all in the name of social distancing and safety from Covid-19. These ideas include limiting the number of people entering a bus, marking off seats on buses and trains to maintain a minimum distance between passengers, and using apps to limit the number of people entering a train station. Even transit activists openly say that it’s good to reduce occupancy per bus or train, they just use this as an argument for running more off-peak frequency and staggering shifts. The message from everyone is clear: public transit is dangerous, don’t ride it, especially if it is crowded.

Public transportation is not especially dangerous, but the danger that does exist is not ameliorated by any physical distancing. Trying to reduce the number of passengers on a bus or train is safety theater and non-English-speaking cities have reduced infection rates without this. Even Jarrett Walker has taken to saying that public transportation should not aim at getting high ridership, though to his credit he steers clear of saying that transit is dangerous in a pandemic.

I’ve already gone over why I don’t think the subway in New York, by a margin the dirtiest I have ridden, is the reason the city’s infection rate is so high. Instead of rehashing that, I want to focus on the converse: on cases in which people do get infected on transit. These clearly exist – my contention isn’t that trains and buses make one invulnerable to the virus, merely that they’re not any more dangerous than the places people might travel to, such as work. Does social distancing on such vehicles help?

There is an answer, in the form of a study out of China about infection on a bus. The answer is no. Here is the graphic of who was and was not infected on a bus that one infected person rode for a 100-minute roundtrip (passengers sat in the same seats on both legs of the trip):

There were 67 passengers on the bus, including the index patient; the index patient infected 23 of them. Proximity to the patient – that is, the distinction between zones 1 and 2 – is not statistically significant. The window passengers on the left side of the bus did not get infected, except the one sitting next to the index patient, but on the right side of the bus, six window seat passengers got the virus.

American and Canadian attempts to limit bus occupancy do not prevent the spread of the virus. The safe occupancy, if people do not wear masks, is 1, or maybe 2 if passengers sit at opposite ends of the vehicle. Limitations on how many passengers can ride the bus at most reduce the number of people one patient can infect, but only if the bus is so crowded that the agency would otherwise add more service. If the bus would have had 20 passengers either way, spreading them around evenly would not help.

What does work is masks. In Taipei, masks are mandatory, and Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism tells me that there is universal compliance. In Berlin, I just observed an U-Bahn train in the evening rush hour, noticeably less full than the usual by a factor of perhaps 2, but still far too full for the tastes of the American transit manager, with nearly all seats occupied and a few people standing; about 85% of the passengers wore masks covering their noses and mouths and maybe 5% more incorrectly wore a mask so as only to cover their mouths. There was a mixture of cloth and surgical masks.

I hesitate to mention Taipei and Berlin in the same sentence. Germany, a country of 83 million people, considers itself a success because it has 170,000 cases and 8,000 deaths. But Taiwan, a country of 24 million people, has had 440 confirmed cases since the beginning of the outbreak. As of yesterday, it had had no new cases in eight days; excluding imports, it had had no new cases in 33 days. A month ago, sailors were erroneously allowed to roam the streets and only recalled to quarantine after three had tested positive; no civilians were infected, because masks were mandatory at the time even on the street.

That said, by solipsistic Western standards, Berlin is doing fairly well. Infection rates are noticeably below the German average, and while 181 people have died citywide, this is still low enough not to be detectable in the overall death rate (“excess mortality”). It joins a list of cities that had a plague but are getting it under control: it is nowhere near as good as Seoul, where train crowding is pretty extensive, but its trends seem cautiously positive.

Despite this optimistic picture painted by the success of places with high mask usage, to a large extent even if it isn’t universal, American transit managers and even advocates seem to be giving up. If the point of public transit is to exist but not get ridership, it’s much easier to push for nice-seeming networks, untethered from any passenger demand.

The general population is hearing the message loud and clear: public transit is dangerous, avoid it if at all possible. The New York Stock Exchange is therefore reopening its famously crowded indoor floor, where a superspreader event is likely if just one infected person comes in, but banning traders from getting there by public transportation. The MTA is already splurging on a McKinsey study saying it will need to spend $700-800 million to attract people back to the subway; so far, low-cost, high-impact measures like photo-ops in which the governor or the mayor wears a mask and rides the subway at rush hour surrounded by other masked riders, are not implemented, sending the same message, important people avoid public transit and so should you.

This ends in a national effort in the United States, and perhaps also Canada, to collectively give up on having any public transit. The advocates aren’t pushing back, the managers are happy with high-tech restrictions on usage, even Streetsblog talks about bike lanes instead of about getting more people on trains, and nobody stops to think, maybe there is a way to preserve transit ridership?

Take the fall in economic activity due to the demand-side recession induced by the virus. Now add the fall coming from the required mass abandonment of New York and to some extent San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, all of which have centers with too many jobs to be served by cars, taxis, or bikes. Maybe it’s possible to get people to work from home, but it’s unclear if they can maintain productivity; I have heard many more people telling me they can’t than people telling me they can, especially among parents. I still don’t think it’s likely, but the US may well fall below Taiwanese GDP per capita, and in a true crisis coming from such mass abandonment it could even drop below Germany and Sweden, which are projecting something like a 7% contraction this year due to the virus’s effects.

This is not something Americans are ready for. They’re used to being on top of the world. Even when they describe social problems that they know other countries have solved, they do this in a kind of self-deprecating way that screams to the outsider, “Yeah, it’s a problem, but we’re so great we’re not that bothered about fixing it.” They’re used to a world whose economic and cultural capital is New York and not Shanghai or Tokyo; they’re used to not needing to learn a foreign language and acquire fluency in foreign cultures to be viewed literate. This solipsism is to some extent pan-Western and is why the West is hurting, but the geopolitical center of the West, the monolingual country that thinks it invented freedom, looks like it’s hurting the most.

160 comments

  1. James S

    The graphic showing 23 out of 67 passengers on a single bus being infected by one person is not really helping your case here.

      • jonsalmans

        Are you aware of any data on how much wearing masks reduces risk in the context of public transit? While some countries have been able to have high transit use with low infection rates, many of those countries have much better testing and contact tracing programs than the United States. While the US should definitely fix its test and contact tracing programs, public transit may be a higher risk than other transportation modes until that happens.

          • jonsalmans

            The goal of policymakers should be to get and keep the reproduction rate R0 below 1 in the least expensive/burdensome way possible.

            Let’s extrapolate from your blog case study. Presumably the infected person was more contagious than the typical person. This blog by an immunology PhD states that the most contagious 20% of infected people release 99% of the viral load into the environment: https://www.erinbromage.com/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them

            So as a rough approximation, let’s say the individual that infected 23 people by riding the bus for 100 minutes represents the average number of transmission for someone in the most contagious 20%, and people in the least contagious 80% don’t infect anyone riding public transit. Let’s assume the average transit rider in the US rides the bus for 100 minutes during the time they are contagious in public.

            Your link says that masks reduce the rate of SARS-COV-2 transmissions in hamsters by up to 75%. Let’s assume that’s the rate in people. The 23 infections was for a full bus (67 passengers).

            23x(1-0.8)x(1-0.75)=23×0.2×0.25=1.15.

            Since this is greater than 1, COVID-19 cases will grow exponentially among transit riders if the buses become full again, if your case study is representative, even with masks. Remember, these are just the infections from riding transit. The transit number needs to be much less than 1 for the overall number to be less than 1, since some infections will occur elsewhere.

            I hope the case study you identified is an outlier case, and the transmission risk from transit is actually lower.

          • michaelrjames

            Since this is greater than 1, COVID-19 cases will grow exponentially among transit riders if the buses become full again, if your case study is representative, even with masks.

            Except we now from all those cities in Asia with heavily-used transit, that empirically that is definitely not the case, even if we don’t know all the mechanisms. In addition, you haven’t modelled the reduction factor of whatever level of protection masks provide to the uninfected (it’s not really high, but it’s not nothing). And it’s a model. The real world tells us it is not accurate.

            As for school buses, the only person to need protection is the (adult) driver and maybe any teachers if they use the bus? This thing with children being hardly affected is a rare bit of luck with this virus.

          • michaelrjames

            Let’s assume the average transit rider in the US rides the bus for 100 minutes during the time they are contagious in public.

            I forgot to add. A factor in transmission is the continuous time of proximity/exposure (which is why the cell-phone Apps use a threshold of >15 minutes proximity to register a contact). That doesn’t mean a super-spreader won’t infect zero people if, say, he keeps walking on the bus or subway car, but it will be a lot lower.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s definitely an outlier case – the R_0 was never 23, IIRC it was around 4 in the early stages in Wuhan, and then the lockdown cut it to 1.23, and then centralized quarantine cut it to 0.67.

          • adirondacker12800

            This thing with children being hardly affected is a rare bit of luck with this virus.

            except for the dead ones or shall we count the ones who got really sick too?

          • michaelrjames

            except for the dead ones

            You mean the 3 or 4 reported deaths worldwide? Ok, it might be more but it is exceedingly small from a public health policy p.o.v. which is the more important aspect in a pandemic. A teensy fraction of the same age group that are killed on the roads, or for that matter in gun massacres.

            or shall we count the ones who got really sick too?

            Again, very low numbers and it concerns those with pre-existing conditions so (eventually) precautions can be taken for this tiny minority.

          • michaelrjames

            So, about one third of US cases are in NY-NJ thus about 9 of those pediatric cases nationwide. US is about one third of all reported case worldwide, thus about 27 such cases worldwide, which is about 5.5 of this pediatric problem per million of infected. However, even for adults (much higher for kids), the number of all infected is much higher, some say ten fold but let’s just say 4 fold for children: little more than 1 of these pediatric cases per million of the general population. I suspect if you could estimate the numbers of children who have been infected, the real incidence would be even lower.

            Every single drug ever used, including aspirin or penicillin has some percentage of people hypersensitive.
            Almost all vaccines have serious adverse effects at 1 per million, so do you want to stop all vaccines. Oops, regret asking that but I am seriously hoping you aren’t an anti-vaxxer, adirondacker. Speaking of, todays news has the depressing story that almost 20% of Swiss, 9% of Germans etc. have said they wouldn’t want to be vaccinated against SARS-Co-V2. What is happening to us westerners? Is this how it ends, with a whimper of anti-science pig-headedness.

            Also, a large number of drugs known to tamp down various pathways involved in inflammation are being tried for covid-19 (because it is this that kills most people, not just those few children).

          • adirondacker12800

            That have been reported. They are still trying to figure out what to call it.

          • Jarek

            “As for school buses, the only person to need protection is the (adult) driver and maybe any teachers if they use the bus? This thing with children being hardly affected is a rare bit of luck with this virus.”

            Do we know if the mostly-unaffected children still spread it or not? Schools and school buses are an excellent route for community transmission if they do spread it.

          • michaelrjames

            Technically it may not yet be known for certain. However, in the case absence of evidence is a good sign of evidence of absence. No clustering or superspreading events have been found in schools or other children-clustering situations. All of which suggests it is not a major spreader in the way school is for standard influenza or colds.
            The main thing here is to avoid what we in the west appear prone to: being massively distracted by irrelevant worries or non-existent or very low-risk events, and thus ignore more important issues. The obsession with “social distancing” is exactly in this category.

            Yesterday Science magazine has a useful summary on superspreading. And it is an official source of ““Probably about 10% of cases lead to 80% of the spread.” [says] Adam Kucharski, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.” This means that the bus event described by the Chinese scientists is exactly what needs to be studied. Below are my extracts but the full article is open access.

            https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/why-do-some-covid-19-patients-infect-many-others-whereas-most-don-t-spread-virus-all
            Why do some COVID-19 patients infect many others, whereas most don’t spread the virus at all?
            By Kai Kupferschmidt, May. 19, 2020

            Other infectious diseases also spread in clusters, and with close to 5 million reported COVID-19 cases worldwide, some big outbreaks were to be expected. But SARS-CoV-2, like two of its cousins, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), seems especially prone to attacking groups of tightly connected people while sparing others. It’s an encouraging finding, scientists say, because it suggests that restricting gatherings where superspreading is likely to occur will have a major impact on transmission, and that other restrictions—on outdoor activity, for example—might be eased.
            “If you can predict what circumstances are giving rise to these events, the math shows you can really, very quickly curtail the ability of the disease to spread,” says Jamie Lloyd-Smith of the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied the spread of many pathogens. But superspreading events are ill-understood and difficult to study, and the findings can lead to heartbreak and fear of stigma in patients who touch them off.
            Most of the discussion around the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has concentrated on the average number of new infections caused by each patient. Without social distancing, this reproduction number (R) is about three. But in real life, some people infect many others and others don’t spread the disease at all. In fact, the latter is the norm, Lloyd-Smith says: “The consistent pattern is that the most common number is zero. Most people do not transmit.”

            That transmission and especially superspreading is conditional on other factors (not just asymptomatic individuals with very high virus count in their secretions) is very optimistic in terms of controlling it. From the same article:

            Some situations may be particularly risky. Meatpacking plants are likely vulnerable because many people work closely together in spaces where low temperature helps the virus survive. But it may also be relevant that they tend to be loud places, Knight says. The report about the choir in Washington made her realize that one thing links numerous clusters: They happened in places where people shout or sing. And although Zumba classes have been connected to outbreaks, Pilates classes, which are not as intense, have not, Knight notes. “Maybe slow, gentle breathing is not a risk factor, but heavy, deep, or rapid breathing and shouting is.”

            I didn’t read anything specific about this in the description of that Chinese bus but given that it was an excursion (same people to one destination then return journey) it seems a good bet that there was a lot of animated discussion going on. This is the exact opposite of what happens on (Asian) transit. So let me reproduce again something that seems to me accurately summarizes why that crowded Asian transit did not lead to major problems:

            The locations where mass infections were confirmed so far are places where the following three conditions were met simultaneously: (1) closed space with poor ventilation, (2) crowded with many people and (3) conversations and vocalization in close proximity (within arm’s reach of one another).
            It’s the third of these criteria which explains why the densely packed and poorly ventilated trains of Tokyo do not lead to infection outbreaks. Nobody talks on the train — not even on their phone — and of course, everybody wears a mask. Conversely, a mega-church where people shake hands, hug, and talk in close proximity is a dream infection vector for COVID-19.

            As time goes by this becomes clearer and clearer, yet in the west officialdom seem obsessed with social distancing which is a recipe for continued economic paralysis. It’s a mystery as to why they are unable to get themselves out of this futile loop. Just like, I would suggest, too many are unable to relax about the paranoia regarding children and schools. Teachers and staff should wear masks and that’s about it; though they should also be made to realise that the biggest threat to teachers is other teachers, especially in their usually crowded shared office space.

          • jonsalmans

            It would be helpful to know what the transmission risk from transit is to begin with in addition to how much wearing masks reduces the risk. I am not sure whether that data exists. But even if only 1% of infected people are contagious enough to infect 23 others, that would make transit a big enough source of transmissions that it would be hard to justify encouraging its use. It would make transit’s contribution to R0 greater than 0.23.

          • michaelrjames

            Jonsalmans wrote:

            But even if only 1% of infected people are contagious enough to infect 23 others, that would make transit a big enough source of transmissions that it would be hard to justify encouraging its use.

            One wonders how the message has been lost in translation? What is it about the effectiveness of masks on transit or any crowded situation that evades about half of the commenters on this thread?
            Here (link & extracts below) is another article on the effectiveness of masks, especially when “worn” by the infected (superspreaders). Now, it may use hamsters (because you can’t do this kind of stuff ethically with humans) but from what I read here there are plenty of hamsters on their transit-wheels on this site. Hamsters are used, not only for being an affordable and practical animal model, but they have a respiratory system with receptors quite similar to humans, and susceptible to infection by the SARS-Co-V2 virus.
            (Emphases are mine.)

            https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/19/coronavirus-wearing-a-mask-can-reduce-transmission-by-75percent-new-study-claims.html
            Wearing a mask can significantly reduce coronavirus transmission, study on hamsters claims
            Natasha Turak, 19 May 2020.

            Experiments by a team in Hong Kong found that the coronavirus’ transmission rate via respiratory droplets or airborne particles dropped by as much as 75% when surgical masks were used.
            “The findings implied to the world and the public is that the effectiveness of mask-wearing against the coronavirus pandemic is huge,” Dr. Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading microbiologist from Hong Kong University who helped discover the SARS virus in 2003, said Sunday.

            The study, which the Hong Kong team calls the first of its kind, used hamsters in two cages; one group of hamsters infected with Covid-19 and the other healthy. The researchers created three different scenarios: mask barriers placed just on cages with the infected subjects, masks covering the healthy subjects, and one with no mask barriers at all, with a fan between the cages allowing particles to be transmitted between them.
            With no mask barriers at all, two-thirds of the healthy hamsters — 66.7% — were infected with the virus within a week, the researchers found.
            When the mask was placed over the infected cage, however, that infection rate dropped to 16.7%.
            The infection rate went up to 33% when the mask barrier was only used to cover the healthy hamsters’ cage.
            The hamsters who were still infected despite having the mask barrier also had less of the virus in their bodies compared to those infected without the masks, the researchers found.
            “In our hamster experiment, it shows very clearly that if infected hamsters or humans — especially asymptomatic or symptomatic ones — put on masks, they actually protect other people. That’s the strongest result we showed here,” Yuen said.

          • jonsalmans

            MichaelJames, In Pittsburgh wear I’m from wearing masks is mandatory both on public transit and in retail locations. Based on my anecdotal observation, compliance seems to be pretty good, and I agree there is clear evidence that this reduces R0, and it is possible the reduction is significant.

            However, for the last month the rolling seven day average number of new cases per day has been between 20 and 25 new cases a day. This suggests that R0 is around 1 with unsustainable shutdown measures still in place. Transit ridership is down by 75%. If it was restored to former ridership R0 will rise, but we don’t have the data to say by how much. If the rise is .00001 than restoring ridership is probably a good idea. If the rise is 0.2, then it’s probably a bad one. To say that a 75% reduction in transmission from masks is sufficient to justify restoring ridership you need to know what the contribution from transit is before wearing masks, and what R0 is now.

            Also, while I would put restoring transit ridership ahead of more things than most people (e.g. I would prioritize it ahead of opening dine in restaurants), I would still prioritize things like opening public schools and public libraries ahead of transit in terms of our limited budget to keep R0 below 1.

          • michaelrjames

            If it was restored to former ridership R0 will rise, but we don’t have the data to say by how much.

            Sure you do. We know it must be very low because Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Taipei etc don’t have anything like the incidence of the west and they have not shut down their crowded metros.
            One might expect Philadelphians to be sensible but the problem is the mixed messaging coming from Trump and different levels of government. You need very high compliance on the subways because of (1) asymptomatic superspreaders and (2) poor protection for the wearer versus the spreader (a poorly fitted mask doesn’t give much protection to its wearer but even a poorly fitted mask prevents an infected person from transmitting it).

          • jonsalmans

            MichaelJames, in the cities you listed, it is possible that the low case counts in the other cities that you listed could be due to other infection control measures not present in the United States. For example, if due to contact tracing and centralized quarantine the R0 from sources other than transit were 0.4 and from transit it was 0.1, that would be manageable for those cities. However for cities with an R0 without transit of 0.95 because they don’t have as good infection control measures, an increase of 0.1 would put the city above 1, resulting in exponential infection growth.

            The anecdotal evidence from other cities suggests the risk may be acceptably low, but there is also reason for concern based on case study examples of spread on transit like the one in Alon’s post. I don’t think there’s enough information to make a definitive case either way.

          • michaelrjames

            also reason for concern based on case study examples of spread on transit like the one in Alon’s post.

            That was when the pax don’t wear masks!
            As to other factors, of course. But I think you have it backwards. The paper in yesterday’s Science magazine has the line “Airborne spread from undiagnosed infections will continuously undermine the effectiveness of even the most vigorous testing, tracing, and social distancing programs.” Also regarding that Chinese bus: Increasing evidence for SARS-CoV-2 suggests the 6 ft WHO recommendation is likely not enough under many indoor conditions where aerosols can remain airborne for hours, accumulate over time, and follow air flows over distances further than 6 ft (5, 10).
            Here is an extract. Note the brevity of the Abstract, only 13 words. Short and direct enough that I reckon some people should write it out 50 times on their whiteboards. (The choice of extract and emphases are mine.)

            https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/05/27/science.abc6197.full
            Reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2
            Kimberly A. Prather1, Chia C. Wang2,3, Robert T. Schooley4, 27 May 2020:
            DOI: 10.1126/science.abc6197

            Abstract: Masks and testing are necessary to combat asymptomatic spread in aerosols and droplets
            …..
            Airborne spread from undiagnosed infections will continuously undermine the effectiveness of even the most vigorous testing, tracing, and social distancing programs. After evidence revealed that airborne transmission by asymptomatic individuals might be a key driver in the global spread of COVID-19, the WHO recommended universal use of face masks. Masks provide a critical barrier, reducing the number of infectious viruses in exhaled breath, especially of asymptomatic people and those with mild symptoms (12) (see the figure). Surgical mask material reduces the likelihood and severity of COVID-19 by substantially reducing airborne viral concentrations (13). Masks also protect uninfected individuals from SARS-CoV-2 aerosols (12, 13). Thus, it is particularly important to wear masks in locations with conditions that can accumulate high concentrations of viruses, such as health care settings, airplanes, restaurants, and other crowded places with reduced ventilation. The aerosol filtering efficiency of different materials, thicknesses, and layers used in properly fitted homemade masks was recently found to be similar to that of the medical masks that were tested (14). Thus, the option of universal masking is no longer held back by shortages.
            From epidemiological data, countries that have been most effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 have implemented universal masking, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. In the battle against COVID-19, Taiwan (population 24 million, first COVID-19 case 21 January 2020) did not implement a lockdown during the pandemic, yet maintained a low incidence of 441 cases and 7 deaths (as of 21 May 2020). By contrast, the state of New York (population ~20 million, first COVID case 1 March 2020), had a higher number of cases (353,000) and deaths (24,000). By quickly activating its epidemic response plan that was established after the SARS outbreak, the Taiwanese government enacted a set of proactive measures that successfully prevented the spread of SARS-CoV-2, including setting up a central epidemic command center in January, using technologies to detect and track infected patients and their close contacts, and perhaps most importantly, requesting people to wear masks in public places. The government also ensured the availability of medical masks by banning mask manufacturers from exporting them, implementing a system to ensure that every citizen could acquire masks at reasonable prices, and increasing the production of masks. In other countries, there have been widespread shortages of masks, resulting in most residents not having access to any form of medical mask (15). This striking difference in the availability and widespread adoption of wearing masks likely influenced the low number of COVID-19 cases.

    • SB

      From the paper “Compared to individuals in the non-exposed bus (Bus #1), those in the exposed bus (Bus #2) were 41.5 (95% CI, 2.6–669.5) times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 (Table 1). Compared to all individuals attending the worship event, passengers in Bus #2 had 11.4 (95% CI: 5.1–25.4) times higher chance of being infected by COVID-19 (Table 1).”
      I don’t think this paper supports Alon’s claim that public transit is safe.

      • Benjamin Turon

        Its not just buses, trains, or planes, but also cinemas, bars, and restaurants. A lot of spread seems to have occurred in churches and offices, with two cases from South Korea I saw highlighted. Ultimately, you must knock down how wide spread the virus is in the community, and then respond to any flare up. Its basically like fighting a wild fire. OK, maybe public transit isn’t safe, but then what is? I would agree that near universal mask wearing could make a big difference, which is why it should be done and enforced. You also need tracing and good testing for the known outbreaks. That is was what was done in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and it seems from what I have read, by Germany. That is what is needed to be done, and right now the USA in many places is “opening up” while the virus is ramping up in infections. That is like responding to a blaze with the fire brigade from Fahrenheit 451… Montag?

        • Herbert

          Didn’t Ray Bradbury say his book wasn’t about censorship?

          Anyway, a German case could be traced to two people sitting back to back in a communal dining area (which are common in Germany and would obviously be impossible to run with universal mask wearing) and one turned around asking the other for salt. That was all it took to get an infection…

      • Eric2

        Yes… and pretty much every plane trip is at least half that length, many much longer. I think the airline industry will be in even worse shape than the transit industry.

        • Herbert

          Just invent a machine that heats the recycled air to 80 degrees Celsius before cooling it back down…

          • adirondacker12800

            run it through a HEPA filter or electrostatic one then expose it to ultraviolet that is shielded from delicate mammals etc.

          • michaelrjames

            Herbert, Eric2, Adirondacker,

            I am sure I have noted before on this blog that airline treatment of air is really quite good these days. Everyone remembers the bad old days when you could often come down with a flu or cold after a long air trip, but eventually that prompted various measures to reduce the problem (which was exacerbated by the air system recirculating untreated air; incidentally they have a legally mandated amount of fresh air they have to inject each cycle–this costs them energy so it balances to “minimal”). I understand that the air is now UV irradiated which, along with dehumidification (for this virus, it won’t matter to “airborne” viruses) and I think (less certainty) Hepa filtered, it means much less risk of circulating pathogens. (Hepa filtering requires a lot of pressure, therefore energy and heavy motors, to force air thru a Hepa filter, and they need regular replacement, probably every flight). This is a perfect situation for UV sterilization because it can be delivered in very intense dose in a perfectly safe situation (in the bowels of the ducting etc).
            But on that point I did see last week that somewhere (Russia?) is UV irradiating their transit vehicles: as I wrote before this is probably less than 100% effective due to shadowing or fabrics (in as much as any such disinfection is required at all; this virus doesn’t survive long enough to worry) and I can just see the horrific safety problems. People are mostly unaware of how dangerous UV is (UV-C, not the UV-A previously used in tanning beds or discos and even that has been rightly banned most places). Like any radiation, by the time you notice the damage it is way too late and you might be blinded for life, or have third degree burns on any exposed skin etc. It is highly reflected off stainless steel which means indirect irradiation happens easily. Though it also has the lucky feature of being absorbed by most things, such as ordinary glass or almost any clear plastic (this is the reason we don’t get much UV-C at ground level because the atmosphere absorbs it all–of course it is the reaction in the upper atmosphere that creates ozone).

          • adirondacker12800

            The manufacturer of my HEPA filter says it’s good for 6 to 12 months. Have to keep the pre-filter clean.

          • asdf2

            I don’t know what the airlines do to filter their air, but I certainly know this – over the course of my life, I have gotten a disproportionate number of colds within a few days after flying on an airplane. While it’s not proof that the plane is the cause, it’s very suspicious. And the coronavirus is more contagious that a typical cold.

            While public transit is probably a lower risk than flying, in that you’re only on the vehicle for 30 minutes, rather than 5 hours, the risk is definitely not nothing. While mandatory masks certainly helps, you’re not going to get universal compliance. Reduced capacity is a defense in depth.

          • michaelrjames

            I don’t think anyone here has suggested that it is not problematic to have infectious people travelling on planes. As you said it has the characteristics perfect for transmission: prolonged proximity. But they have improved the air situation over time. Equally there is a limit to how much that can substitute for masks which are most effective when worn by the infected/infectious. The crisis facing the industry might provoke some other systematic approaches but it is a difficult problem involving physical and behavioural issues. As far as air is concerned one could imagine a kind of silo effect with air intake above each passenger but to be effective it might not be tolerable by most pax. And it seems impossible for the air to satisfy everyone–it always seems either too cold or too hot.

            There is almost no practical means of reducing proximity, ie. density of seats, without destroying the economics of modern aviation. It will be a return to the pre-modern (pre-747) era when business & first class are the only people who can afford to fly. I imagine the epidemiological studies already exist (if suppressed by the industry) showing that these two classes suffer significantly less of the post-flying colds & flu as you describe. Or the captain & flight crew versus the stewards. The paradox is that substitution of ocean cruising (like in the pre-747 era) is even worse!

          • michaelrjames

            Hey, here’s a thought.
            Maybe this will resurrect the A380, bring it back from the grave?
            It can fit in many more better-spaced seating than any other plane. What previously was an economic weakness now becomes its strength. They could make it a USP to reinforce its current USP as one of the most comfortable big planes to fly, now also the healthiest (at least if you’re not in 1st or Biz). They could label the new premium economy or whatever, “Crown class”, geddit? Airbus should get the epidemiological studies underway and buy up the world supply of golden hamsters! Maybe recruit Anthony Fauci as consultant.

      • James S

        100 minutes per day on a transit vehicle is not uncommon. Ie, all the NJ people who come into Manhattan via the PANYJ after their 70 minute ride on a single bus. Thats 140 minutes a day.

    • Sara

      The paper says it did not find a statistically significant difference between the 2 buses studied. ” In the first COVID-19 outbreak, passengers in Bus #2 had a 41.5 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 2.6–669.5) times higher risk of getting COVID-19 compared to those in bus #1, and 11.4 (95% CI: 5.1–25.4) times higher risk compared to all other individuals attending the worship event. Within Bus #2, passengers in high-risk zones had moderately, but non-significantly, higher risk for COVID-19 compared to those in the low-risk zones. In the second outbreak, the overall attack rate was 48.3%. “

      • Alon Levy

        The confidence interval is 2.6-669.5, which is huge but still statistically significant since the bottom of the interval is more than 1.

  2. Benjamin Turon

    Actually, there are a lot of voices yelling in the media about how bad the USA is doing compared to other nations (including Germany, Denmark, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand) and predicting another Great Depression from the nation’s failure on both the disease and economic fronts. I watched just 10 minutes ago a piece on MSNBC on Hong Kong and masks, highlighting the fact they have basically been able to carrying on with several precautions without suffering a big infection and death toll.

    Hayes To Right-Wing: Nothing Is Stupider Than Not Wearing Mask As ‘Badge Of Honor

    Look, the pandemic is like terrorism, everyone fears the subway but not the Walmart, even though we have had more gun massacres in Walmarts then subway bombings. Assuming America gets out of this in a few years (or we get sealed off by the rest of the world) then like fears of terrorism, fear of the pandemic will reside. And its not just public transit, but all public transport that is being mainlined in the USA, particularly air travel.

    As for the decline of America, well you should see the conspiratorial posts on the Facebook pages of my family and friends. Look at the crazy people with guns running a amok in the Michigan State capital building. People punching and shooting store employees for requesting that customers wear a mask. Does this look like a well informed or run nation? They say a fish rots from the head, but this American Bass is rotting from both ends.

    The American ship of state is basically manned by the crew of the Kamchatka and in combat against COVID-19 will likely end up like the Second Russian Pacific squadron. And for more on that…

    Kamchatka: The curse of the Russian fleet, the repair ship Kamchatka, is today’s subject.

    • SB

      Possible explanation why Americans dismiss arguments against American exceptionalism:
      From the early days of US, people (usually outsiders) have argued that America will not last.
      Maybe it is survivorship bias but betting against US has not been historically a good idea.
      So talks of how America will never recover from X sounds like The Boy Who Cried Wolf…

      • Benjamin Turon

        True, but perhaps this time they will be right! That would make Lord Palmerston happy…

      • Herbert

        “As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die of suicide” – Abraham Lincoln way before he became famous…

    • Herbert

      Armin Laschet, easily the dumbest person in government in Germany at the moment has been captured on photo early on wearing a mask but his nose hanging out….

      • Alon Levy

        I am endlessly frustrated by how in the last 10 weeks the Union has gone in the polls from 26% to 38% and the Greens from 25% to 16%. All hail our next chancellor Laschet.

        • Herbert

          Laschet would first have to win the party internal primary. And I think Merkel is putting her thumb on the scale to prevent him.

          I think Söder is more likely…

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t think anyone outside Bavaria wants a CSU chancellor. I might have to remember the name of the leader of the Green Party if the Union runs a Bavarian.

          • Alon Levy

            I can, but sometimes I have to look him up just to be sure, because he doesn’t seem to be doing anything.

      • Benjamin Turon

        Tom M, Being both a railway and naval/maritime fan, I’m surprised by the connections and lessons that can be drawn from each that can be applied to the other. For a start both Navies and Railways involve large physical plants that are long-term investments with long-lived assets, and nowadays involve government money, oversight, and management. I don’t think its a coincidence that the US Navy can’t acquisition good ships (along with other Pentagon debacles), while big infrastructure projects like subways and high speed rail go badly, or not at all.

        The USA has lousy project management, and that is a result I think of outsourcing of former government/railway planning and design functions to private sector contractors. The UK I think was better off with British Rail doing a lot in-house (Intercity 125), although the Royal Navy seems to have done better than the US Navy with its Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, but both services could at one time design and build their own weapons and ships in their own dock yards. Damn Socialism!

        • Herbert

          Would you say the “teething issues” of virtually every new train would be less if they were produced in-house?

          • Henry Miller

            Which parts. The rolling stock should be cheaper buying off the shelf. Of course if you demand your own custom artistic style (paint is easy, but if it goes deeper) or some other feature that is different you may as well do it yourself. Likewise buy standard rails, switches, control programs (if you can’t buy them at least work with other organizations to get a common one). The layout is unique to your city though so you can’t outsource much : the consultants will need weeks to learn about your city things you already know. Once you have the layout you can have a consultant do the details. Even if you do this in house it is worth paying someone independent to verify your design will hold up. Building should be contracted out, but you need your own experts to watch, ensure they are putting in the right concrete slump or whatever standards are needed.

            For military do everything thing in house. Yes it is cheaper to buy a ship, gun, or airplane from someone else, particularly if you are a small country. However don’t risk it. If you go to war you might find you unable to buy anything, or your ships refuse to fire on the enemy. A military should regularly see how fast they can build a ship (different ship each time), gun (quantities of 1000) , bullet (million at a batch)… All of this should be done with novice labor (just out of basic training) Just to ensure they know how to ramp up production.

    • myb6

      I have to second this, I don’t know where Alon is getting this idea. For transit I totally agree with the solipsism thesis: density/car culture/history/etc are used to totally write off international experience even for issues where they’re completely irrelevant. However, for covid, cross-country comps are a *huge* part of the conversation: mask and test/trace advocates consistently relying on East Asia in their argumentation, and lockdown/anti types all watching Sweden’s experiment like hawks.

      There’s obviously a strong distinction between evidence-gathering types (who are looking at international comparison at least as much as domestic for covid) and non-evidence-gathering types (who are looking at neither), but that’s a separate issue.

      • Alon Levy

        But Sweden isn’t any less closed than the United States was. And very few Westerners are looking at centralized quarantine in Asia and in Israel, even ones who think what they’re calling for is what Korea is doing.

  3. Christopher Cramer

    As an American, arguing in favor of transit and cities feels hopeless right now. It feels exactly like it felt arguing against the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. American urbanism was pretty weak to begin with, but I fear it will take decades to come back from this.

    • Herbert

      There is also the possibility that people will experience emptier streets with fewer cars and kinda like it. It might be possible to build on that…

    • Jos Callinet

      @Christopher Cramer – It’s very likely now that the U.S. is embarking on a major experiment – the nearly-complete shut-down and closure of all public transit systems nationwide – together with a closure of most urban streets to cars, so that the public has room to walk socially-distanced and allowing restaurants in good season to set up well-spaced tables in the streets. London is taking the lead on this new trend by closing a considerable number of streets in Central London to cars.

      The U.S. has always been deeply anti-transit, as well as deeply anti-rail in general. This does not apply just to the United States. Canada has shut down its transcontinental train service, which is unlikely ever to return. Amtrak is on the ropes, too, and its long-distance trains will soon be a memory.

      Cities and states now have a GREAT excuse to shut down public transit entirely – precisely BECAUSE transit is considered a major scourge transmitter of diseases, exacerbated by the fact that there is no longer any money to pay for transit investment and operation, owing to the enormous loss of local and state tax revenue due to the nationwide shelter-in-place mandate.

      We are about to find out on a large scale what life in big U.S. cities will be like with the buses and subways gone from the mix. We may well discover that we can do just fine by walking and cycling everywhere, as our Dutch brethren have long been doing since time immemorial. In exchange for permanently shuttering our public transportation systems, we Americans must follow London’s example by banning cars from all but a few arterial roads.

      • fjod

        London isn’t banning cars from the vast majority of roads; the City of London I think is, but that represents something like 0.01% of London. And I hate to break it to you, but Dutch people don’t just get around by bike – Dutch public transport is running at near-normal capacity (in some cases I think above normal capacity, to allow social distancing). The Netherlands wouldn’t function without public transport.

        • Jarek

          Although you are right that it is a small percentage of London roads overall, this is initiative by TfL and the Mayor of London, not by City of London, and extends well beyond City of London’s square mile. It includes several truly major roads whose closure will also result in less traffic around them. https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2020/05/london_street_changes/giv-3902QTLEjs5D5Roo/ is a map: Farringdon Street/Road, Theobals Road/Clerkenwell Road (with their continuation Oxford Street being already closed to most traffic), London Bridge/Bishopsgate, Southampton Row/Kingsway/Waterloo Bridge and a few others. These are the major car routes in the area and if that plan is kept even mid-term will represent a huge change.

  4. Henry Fung (@calwatch)

    The counter to the lack of productivity for parents is that they have to manage their children’s educations while nominally working. If schools reopened, or even day care, they could be more productivity. Also there has to be a cabin fever phenomenon going on. I still drive into work in the afternoons, nominally to access financial systems that I cannot do at my home office, but it gets me out of the house for a few hours and I get to have casual conversations with the 15% or so of people still left in the office.

    • Jarek

      Speaking of schools reopening – does anyone have answers about school buses? They are normally the majority of communal transport in Canada and the US, and it’d be interesting to have a situation where school buses are supposed safe but city buses are not. If school buses are not considered safe, having each child chauffeured by their parents twice a day would be a way bigger life change outside of big cities than no transit buses.

  5. michaelrjames

    I’m not sure what some other commenters are saying, but it seems pretty clear cut and I am in total agreement. FWIW I was thinking of posting a comment on your earlier piece along the same lines. Because it has become very noticeable, here in Australia and from the news I see out of the UK, that the official line and advice is seriously amiss. The meme of “social distancing” has ripped around—dare I say it–the Anglosphere to the point of tedium. Here they have put those overhead traffic text displays into “practice social distancing” along all major roads! While one cannot exactly say it is wrong, but the insistence on it as the sole preventative measure seems misguided, exactly as you say. At the same time there is a lot of worrying and hand-wringing about transit, yet the Asian solution or even the Asian facts, barely get mentioned. I am finding the constant invocation to wash hand a bit tedious too–of course people should be doing it but the reality is that this is not a major (or probably even minor) means of transmission; all this ridiculous distraction of sterilising everything.

    That pattern on the bus strongly suggests to me that the air flow was a factor. One wonders if the left hand side windows were open, or maybe it is where the aircon/ventilation is blowing?

    However the Europeans seem to getting there. I saw a recent pic of the first live theatre show in Czech Republic and everyone was wearing a mask (presumably mandatory), though possibly they had left every second row empty (which I believe is unnecessary and this kind of thing is not going to rescue the dire economics of the arts.). As I understand it, masks are mandatory on Eurostar and most wear masks on the Paris Metro?

    • Alon Levy

      Czechia and Slovakia are the earliest adopters of masks in Europe, I think? But there’s a fair amount of masking here, and I hear also in France.

      Is Australia at least reallocating street space? Hidalgo and Khan are both reallocating street space from cars to bikes, permanently, and I think so are a bunch of other cities here (Milan, maybe? And I think Boris is doing something to that effect even outside London?).

      • michaelrjames

        Is Australia at least reallocating street space?

        Not that I’m aware of.
        I think Hidalgo is being clever. Somewhat opportunistic but a clever way to “not let a good crisis go to waste”. And the car lobby can hardly deny the change in the quality of the air over Paris.

        • john

          Seattle’s mayor announced-this week, I think- that they’re permanently closing 20 miles of streets to cars, and some other cities are debating or test-piloting similar things on a smaller scale. Pockets of D.C. and either Arlington or Alexandria are temporarily “widening sidewalks” by using traffic cones and other temporary barriers to narrow some streets here and there. Will be interesting to see how many, if any, of these closures stick.

        • Mike

          In Seattle it’s a few residential streets parallel to arterials, mostly exiisting greenways (low-volume streets that are signed as a bicycle corridor). Cars can still use them to access houses and for deliveries. The neighborhoods previously agreed that that’s where the greenways would be, that they would eventually have more bicycle improvements, and that car traffic might be limited at some point. The entrances are single-lane and people can walk the entire width of the street, so it’s essentially like a woonerf.

          • john

            Thank you, Mike! Sounds basically like they’re signed “No through traffic” or “Local traffic only” (is there enforcement?). With prior neighborhood buy-in, these are likely to last beyond the crisis, and similar traffic-restrictions on residential side streets already exist in many other cities (usually affluent neighborhoods, like Roland Park here in Baltimore), so might make a good thin-end-of-the-wedge for advocates in other cities to accustom their communities to car-space reduction. So that’s good to hear.

          • Herbert

            In general many pro-walking and pro-bike measures introduced “on a trial basis” can be made to stick

      • michaelrjames

        There might be some movement here (Australia).
        On our public broadcaster this morning (ABC-RadioNational) Norman Swan effectively said the same thing as Alon’s article: that transit and performance venues, sporting stadia etc could only return to normal by the use of masks.
        Swan is a medical doctor and media type (he was actually managing-director of ABC-RN for some years; he gives a weekly health report) who has become a bit of a celeb here, for his daily coronacast, which he created because the commercial media were doing such a woeful job. He is now interviewed by other media, and he said that the highpoint of his career was being referenced by Rush Limbaugh. He was being sardonic. But his piece on whether farts spread the virus did have its 15milliseconds of fame around the world–I saw it on Colbert! (The answer is, not if you’re wearing underpants which are the equivalent of face masks for your other orifices!)

        Swan is not an official spokesperson (eg. for the government or any health agency) which he always points out, but this means he can go where the officials can’t or don’t want to. Naturally the Murdoch press have tried to denigrate him, not least because he’s doing far better than the commercial media and they just want the ABC shut down. But he now gets a lot more attention (though his weekly show has had its occasional breakouts) and so it may be possible officialdom may react–slowly. Part of his charm is his remnant Scottish accent and the fact that he is a rare species a scot and a jew, and it all comes across as informed common sense.
        https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/coronacast/

      • michaelrjames

        Well so much for my hope for sanity in Oz.

        [extracts]

        https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/may/19/public-transport-workers-must-be-protected-from-covid-19-as-passengers-return-union-warns
        ‘Give us bloody masks’: union calls for Covid-19 protection for public transport workers
        Sydney bus drivers won’t rule out strike action as governments, employers and transport experts grapple with how to keep people safe as restrictions ease
        Elias Visontay, Justine Landis-Hanley, 19 May 2020

        The secretary of the New South Wales Rail, Tram and Bus Union, David Babineau, criticised NSW government advice that drivers should not enforce new 12-person capacity limits on buses and instead accept all passengers who attempt to board as unclear and potentially hazardous to drivers.
        But Babineau said the contradiction in messaging had led the union to consider implementing its own information campaign for drivers and public transport users to encourage safe social distancing.
        “There needs to be a huge public campaign about the new rules here. The union needs to bypass the government entirely and appeal to passengers directly.” He also pleaded with the government to “give us bloody masks”. “We’ve been asking for it forever, masks, masks, masks.”

        The NSW transport minister, Andrew Constance, announced measures on Monday to ensure physical distancing, which include a reduction in the number of people allowed in a train carriage from 123 to 32, delegating where people can sit and stand, and securing more public parking to accommodate the anticipated increase in drivers avoiding public transport.

        “There’s a total lack of clarity on this. We’re being told social distancing is vitally important,” he said, pointing out the advice to drivers also states school children and vulnerable riders should never be left at a bus stop and urges drivers to avoid confrontation with passengers flouting distancing, regardless of whether the 12-passenger limit has been reached.
        “There’s no mechanism to enforce this. Is it a rule, a guideline, or a suggestion? They’re all very different things. Someone needs to do something concrete here.”
        The NSW government has been contacted for clarification.

  6. Ben Ross

    I think you are getting at something here, but I also think you are misinterpreting the study. By “airborne transmission” they mean transmission by small aqueous droplets (or maybe particulates) that remain suspended in the air for a long time, as opposed to larger drops that fall quickly out of the atmosphere by gravity. The assumption behind 6-foot social distancing is that large drops are the means of transmission and they will be removed by gravity within that distance.

    A new lab study reported in the NY Times also argues for transmission by small particulates. They measured half-lives of 5 to 10 minutes for exhaled droplets remaining airborne in still air. (The 8 to 14 minutes cited in the news article is the exponential decay constant.) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/health/coronavirus-infections.html

    These studies imply that the risk of transmission in confined indoor environments should be modeled by a box model of uniformly mixed air, as is typically used to model risk from indoor air pollution (an area where I have done work). There is an additional risk of proximity less than 1.5 m or so, which depends on distance (people close by on the bus were more likely to be infected; that this did not have statistical significance in the study is irrelevant because there is evidence from other research).

    Conditions on an urban transit bus promote mixing and reduce fallout, compared to other confined environments. The bus lurches, stops and starts, and opens and closes its doors. It seems like a lot of the research is based on still air.

    How does this relate to protective measures?

    First, homemade masks and loosely fitted hospital masks are more efficient at blocking large drops than small droplets. A large drop has a larger mass/surface area ratio so momentum leaving the mouth or nose will carry it through the air to strike the mask. A small droplet is more likely to be entrained in the air flow and carried around the edge of the mask.

    Second, the dominant parameter in the box model is the exchange rate of air between the box and the outside. Exposure is proportional to the mean residence time of the air in the box. On an urban transit bus in passenger service, the residence time can be brought down to a very small number by removing all the windowpanes from the passenger area. Ventilation systems, which recirculate air within the bus to efficiently heat or cool it, should be turned off. While this will make the bus less comfortable in bad weather, riders have to dress for the weather anyway and the discomfort is bearable during a pandemic (at least on routes that do not travel at expressway speeds).

    (The argument I expect to see against this is that open windows will cause large drops to be carried far beyond 1.5 m and thus expose more people. But what this and a number of other studies seem to show is that if large drops are the main means of transmission, ordinary air conditioner blowers already do this. To the extent this is so, the box model would be applicable to large drops too.)

    Thus masks and ventilation are complementary measures that are both required to reduce infection risk from bus travel. A moving bus with windows wide-open seems likely to have orders of magnitude faster air exchange than, say, a big-box store. If mask-wearing is sufficiently effective against large-drop transmission (a big if), travel in a crowded bus with windowpanes removed would indeed be a small risk compared to exposures in stores and at work.

    • Herbert

      As far as the evidence we now have suggests “open windows” are a good preventative measure, especially so in moving vehicles. Sadly many modern trains are built without openable windows for various reasons (among them the danger caused by sticking a head out a window)

      • Ben Ross

        I’m old enough to have ridden the NY subway before air conditioned cars were pervasive. The windows opened and people didn’t stick their heads out. Yes, there is a risk, but Covid is clearly a bigger risk at the moment.
        That said, I don’t know if this analysis applies to subways. The air movement in a tunnel is quite different. That would need additional study.

          • Ben Ross

            Are they now keeping the windows open? I read that Germany has warned parents to dress children warmly for reopened schools, since windows will be kept open.

          • Benjamin Turon

            Fresh air circulation is one the oldest and most obvious actions that can be taken, along with wearing masks. Bring back the old heavy-weight three-axle coaches of the 1920s! Or completely open cars like some tourist railways. I read that the SNCF promoted electrification because it eliminated the smoke and cinders of steam engines, and that the French preferred the fresh air and were late in adopting AC. Likely not a solution for 200-mph TGV, I’ve been in the open air at 110-mph in the vestibule of a old Budd parlor car with the dutch doors open. I’ve also been in Amfleet with open doors when the AC failed, kinda cool yet scary to see the Hudson River zip by at 90-mph. Open windows are a easier fix for transit.

    • michaelrjames

      Good post, but:

      There is an additional risk of proximity less than 1.5 m or so, which depends on distance (people close by on the bus were more likely to be infected; that this did not have statistical significance in the study is irrelevant because there is evidence from other research).

      That’s not the way experiments or interpretation of research works!
      It certainly doesn’t look like the distance rule was the dominant factor on that bus. And the statistics support that. One cannot overrule that based on expectation or we would never bother with real world experiments (as this is). Proximity and time of that proximity is important but it means other factor(s) must have been in play to account for the results. As I said in my first post, airflow was probably important.

      Regarding that, I would guess that any kind of strong airflow would tend to diminish infectiousness, on the principle that this virus doesn’t survive dehydration. (It is not airborne in the technical sense. It is droplet borne.) Aircon is very dry air so I’m not sure it is going to propagate this particular virus.

      • Benjamin Turon

        The issue would seem in part to having the AC in good working order, my experience is a lot artificial ventilation is in reality non-ventilation.

      • Ben Ross

        The study cited in NYT argues that the virus survives when the droplet evaporates, as part of a ball of organic junk (not what they call it) that was suspended in the exhaled droplet. I am in no position to judge whether that’s correct, but I do know that organic matter will tend to be hydrophilic and at higher humidity (not the 27% in their experiment, but at humidities likely to prevail on a crowded bus on a wet day) retain a layer of water one molecule thick or even several molecules. At near-100% humidity, as would likely prevail in a bus on a rainy day, a small irregularly shaped hydrophilic particle will fill its interior pores with water and have a smooth ball of water around it.

        In thermodynamic terms (this is from memory, I hope I get the signs right, and maybe this is unnecessary but in my experience people don’t look at this stuff thermodynamically), water sitting on a hydrophilic surface has a lower chemical potential than free water. Thus it is in equilibrium with water vapor at less than 100% relative humidity, since the chemical potential of the water vapor (close to an ideal gas here) is proportional to its partial pressure. So at high RH, water will condense on the particle (or fail to evaporate). That creates a water-air interface. At such an interface, surface tension lowers the chemical potential of the liquid water in proportion to the curvature. So the droplet will expand until the chemical potential of the water surface (depressed by surface tension) is equal to the chemical potential of the vapor, which is depressed because relative humidity < 100%. If the droplet starts bigger, it will stop shrinking when it reaches that point The closer the humidity to 100%, the flatter the surface of the droplet wants to be, so the bigger the droplet is at equilibrium.

        • michaelrjames

          I’m fairly sure that they know SARS-Co-V2 is not airborne but only droplet borne. I think this is why the Asians stopped it dead despite crowded transit–because everyone wears a mask and it so clearly does the job.
          Of course it really needs to be mandatory for anyone entering public transit because the only way it works is if those infected but pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic wear masks, otherwise some of them become superspreaders ignorantly spreading disease like Typhoid Mary. Perhaps a bad analogy because it turns out she had been told repeatedly she was a spreader but was a recidivist in ignoring it, and continued working in kitchens (!) until they were forced to isolate her for the rest of her life on Brother island in the East river. Officially IIRC they documented 50 of her victims but suspect it could have been hundreds–one of the biggest serial killers in history, though not a patch on Donald Trump!

          • Eric2

            I think basic R0 for the virus is 2.2 (based on case growth rates in most countries). R0 with masks and cancellation of major events is 1.5 (based on Japan before lockdown). A little knowledge about exponential growth shows that 1.5 leads to vastly slower spread than 2.2. But 1.5 is still intolerable in the long term. Hopefully contact tracing is enough to get the 1.5 down to somewhat below 1.0, so the virus can be eradicated without significant long-term restrictions to human activities.

  7. Teddy

    Sure, I don’t disagree that the perception that transit is dangerous and a disease vector is hard to overcome. But I wouldn’t hang my hat on one study about infection rates on a bus. I haven’t seen the numbers corroborated or turned into death rate or anything like that, but what would you say to the fact that it seems like NY MTA workers have an outsized number of fatalities (per https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/opinion/coronavirus-nyc-subway.html).

    So, point taken, but what is your proposed solution? Better education? More mask provision? Maybe that’s not in the spirit of pedestrian observations, but I’m curious to know what you’d do if given free reign to solve the image problem.

    • Alon Levy

      MTA worker deaths include a large number of workers who do not have face-to-face contact with passengers, such as cleaners, station agents, and subway conductors.

      And my proposed solution is PPE for the subway workers, and mass masking and centralized quarantine for society in general.

    • Luke

      I think the point is that just social distancing is insufficient, in large part because public transport is just one place where people end up together for extended-ish periods in a confined space. Grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, even areas with denser groups of people and stagnant air all necessitate mask wearing. Maybe I’m being simplistic, but it seems that even if social distancing is maintained, yet people are still moving, you will in fact be moving through the “airspace” of where someone just was. Better that they where wearing a mask for however long people are where they were, right?

  8. Gok (@Gok)

    Taiwan remains a silly example. Behavior on public transit is completely irrelevant to why there are few cases in Taiwan (or South Korea, before you bring that one up). Masks on trains in Taiwan is essentially security theater.

    I don’t get your GDP/jobs argument at all. As you mention often, transit usage in the US is a rounding error, so most of the country is just going back to driving as usual, probably getting some people sick. In the tiny slice that uses transit, those that can drive will and traffic will get a bit worse. Those that can’t drive will just go back to being crammed into overcrowded transit. Death due to poor public health has never lead to New York being abandoned before, why would this be different?

    • Alon Levy

      Pre-virus New York had higher life expectancy than the rest of the US, for one. American cities in general have had lower mortality rates than rural America since about the 1910s.

  9. Aaron Moser

    New Zealand and Australia are the western countries by far doing the best. I wounder why? Oh I wounder? What a mystery

        • michaelrjames

          Gok was making a joke.
          Though Sydney has a fair use of transit, about 17% and growing quite fast (as the roads get worse and the road tolls outpace inflation), not including walking and cycling or scootering.

          Anyway, I posted on this site ages ago that I reckon the very hot and very dry conditions at the beginning (Dec-Jan-Feb) probably played a role in suppressing transmission. Remember our flu season is inverse of northern hemisphere–your winter is our blisteringly hot summer that extends half the year (mostly not humid except the deep north where few live). No doubt you saw half the country burning on your tv news.

          I don’t think what the government did was as great as they and the story goes; for example they weren’t particularly early and reacted to the Italian & Spanish disaster. We almost certainly got it as early because of our proximity to Asia and so many Chinese and Asian citizens and tourists and students travelling at that time of the year (our university year begins in late-Jan.early -Feb. Though as has become obvious, incoming Chinese were not such a problem because they knew the problem and took precautions not to spread it to anyone including their own families.

        • Eric2

          No, Taiwan and South Korea are the western countries doing best (Australia and New Zealand are just as far east as Taiwan and Korea, and similarly rich democracies). And even if you arbitrarily exclude them because “Mongoloids are somehow different from us” or another such reason, Sydney and Melbourne are massive cities with heavily used transit which are doing much better than low-transit cities like Dallas, Miami, or Leeds.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s not “Mongoloids are different from us.” People in rich Asia do not self-perceive as Western. In school they learn the premodern history of China, Korea, and Japan, and not that of Ancient Greece and Rome and medieval Europe. They identify in opposition to the West, to the point that Lee Kuan Yew had to sell his postwar Tory values as Asian values, while some dissidents in Singapore note that the PAP is not recognizably Confucian and if there’s a Chinese rather than British tradition it hearkens to it’s Legalism. They are not terribly familiar with intra-European distinctions, like British vs. French vs. German culture, even at the level of stereotypes familiar to Americans; in contrast, they are very familiar with the cultural distinctions between China and Japan. Ideas in Europe, esp. Continental Europe take forever to reach rich Asia nowadays, for example a lot of livable streets changes; in contrast, ideas from one rich Asian country reach the others faster, especially if the transmission is from Japan to the rest, which modeled their own development on Japan.

            Many people in Asia are racist, as in the West, and have ridiculous stereotypes of white people, just as whites do of Asians (whereas stereotypes of black people among Asian racists are imported from the West). But it’s not just racial. Singaporeans and Malaysians (correctly) identify Asian-Americans as Westerners; even Asians who are fluent in Chinese or another heritage language are tagged as foreigners if they speak English without the local accent, which Singaporeans denigrate amongst themselves. The only Asian-American I know who Singaporeans treated as more of a local is a Taiwanese-American who speaks Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent, which is close to a Singaporean accent because of these two countries’ Chinese populations’ shared Hokkien heritage.

  10. Onux

    Although I appreciate Alon’s diligence trying to find evidence that social distancing on transit is not necessary (in this case arguing it is not effective), the Chinese bus is not representative. Current thinking is that R0 (the number of new infections each infected person causes) is 2-3 for Covid-19; some studies suggest up to 6. This means if the average person with Covid-19 is contagious for 14 days, not in quarantine or wearing a mask, they will infect one person every 3-7 days. The bus where one person infected 23 others in two hours is thus a highly abnormal superspreader event.

    This is a double edged sword. On the one hand that bus shouldn’t be used as an example of transit being dangerous. If all busses and subways had this transmission rate then literally everyone who rode the subway or bus in NYC would be infected in days, and the city would report millions of confirmed cases not hundreds of thousands.

    On the other hand, this doesn’t support Alon’s contention that reducing crowds on transit is ineffective. It would have been ineffective on *this* bus, but what about the tens of thousands of transit trips with one or two transmissions (or none). On those trips it could be that distance is statistically significant, and that infection rate could be lowered by using alternate rows etc.

    I actually agree with Alon that transit (and many other things) shouldn’t be abandoned due to virus fears, since there are other ways to mitigate spread. But a single outlier case isn’t evidence that distancing doesn’t work.

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  12. larrylittlefield

    This pandemic will pass, the easy way (a vaccine), the hard way (group immunity after most people have gotten it and most people have died), or a mix of the two — imperfect immunity from past similar forms of the virus and a not 100 percent vaccine.

    It may be that the shock of a disease that can’t be cured with antibiotics will scare some people away from cities and mass transit, into isolated lives. That being the case, the price of real estate in cities will plunge, making them attractive to other people. Notably young people, who tend to feel invincible.

    The threat to mass transit in New York is financial. Those who have been in control of it have been sucking money out and handing it to each other for nearly 30 years, shifting the cost to the future to avoid political blowback. The huge surge in ridership helped their goal of covering this up. A $5.00 fare for public transportation that breaks to down all the time would be the ultimate victory for New York’s political/union class.

    • RossB

      I agree. The idea that transit will somehow be unpopular *after* the pandemic is ridiculous. Can you say the same thing about bars, restaurants and hair salons. All three are banned right now. Talk about sending a message. The buses still run. The trains still run. But every bar, restaurant and hair salon in town is closed. But once the pandemic is over, people will return to those businesses, and will return to using transit. They won’t need a special P. R. campaign. What all of them need is money to survive.

      By the way, limiting people on the bus or subway is a reasonable response. Grocery stores limit the number of people allowed inside. They also require masks, too. In general, it is very hard to require masks on a bus or subway, so it is quite possible that someone will not have a mask. Since most masks protect everyone else (not the individual) an infected person without a mask could potentially do everything that was done on this bus. That is why limiting the number of people on the bus (or restaurant) is reasonable. Even if there is some spreading of the disease, it spreads to fewer people (e. g. imagine if the bus only had half the passengers).

      As restaurants open, they are doing the same thing. When sporting events open, they will do the same thing. It is not as safe as if no one attends, but it is not as dangerous as if everyone was crowded together. As mentioned up above, ventilation is very important. Taking the same approach for restaurants as for transit is quite reasonable.

      What is nuts is opening up the New York Stock Exchange floor. Isn’t that against city or state regulations? Has the mayor and governor learned nothing?

      • seah0rses

        NYSE floor is theater. > 90 percent of NYSE trades are done electronically. And NYSE accounts for only around 25 percent of all US stock trading volume. Other exchanges that feature 100 percent electronic trading account for the rest.

  13. Jarek

    Speaking of schools reopening – does anyone have answers about school buses? They are normally the majority of communal transport in Canada and the US, and it’d be interesting to have a situation where school buses are supposed safe but city buses are not. If school buses are not considered safe, having each child chauffered by their parents twice a day would be a way bigger life change outside of big cities than no transit buses.

    • Josh

      I know the plan for my children’s school (in Quebec) is for those who are travelling furthest (so first to board in the morning, last to get off in the afternoon) to be in the back of the bus, so that no child gets close to another while boarding. I think capacity is also considerably reduced (which is fine for the moment – less that half of students are back). Every day the child sits in the same seat, and the bus only makes one pickup and one dropoff run per day (normally they would make a 2nd run for high schools, but they aren’t back yet). Children are not obliged to wear masks but the driver would. Anyways, given these obviously unsustainable measures (and the lower susceptibility of children), cleaning surfaces and mask wearing don’t matter as much there as on an urban transit bus or train.

  14. Mikel

    Wait, how is 3+2 seating possible in a bus? I used to do an 80-minute trip twice a week on a standard 2+2 one and it was uncomfortably cramped. Or are Chinese buses wider than European ones?

    • Andrew in Ezo

      Likely the third seat on the left hand side row are flip up jump seats akin to what you see in some railway carriage vestibules- normally folded up integrated into the armrest but deployed to increase capacity on chartered group trips, which likely was the case here. Blocks the aisle, but a manageable nuisance where the everyone aboard are going to one destination.

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  16. Benjamin Turon

    If people do less work at the “office” it could increase intercity rail travel, since if you only have to be in the office in Manhattan once a week, or even once a month, then you can live further away. A two-hour commute from more affordable or rural environs is hell for a daily commute, but one or twice a week, its not bad, when you work from home.

    • Paul

      Agreed, and one of my friends was saying something similar back in March. There are a lot of people out there who have made some compromise in price, space, roommates, etc. to live in a central location. What if a shift to remote work removes the daily commute? Some people might stay in an urban location because they like the amenities, but plenty of others are likely to move somewhere cheaper. I lived in an edge city environment in grad school and thought it was pretty nice — enough of a local hub to have most goods & services in walking distance, and the long-ish train ride to campus wasn’t so bad when I didn’t have to do it every day.

      • df1982

        I think the trend is the opposite: if people are untethered from a workplace then they end up moving to where they want to live the most, and for most young people that is the centres of big, vibrant cities. Hence why rents in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, etc are exploding, but Scranton, Merced, South Bend, etc., not so much.

  17. Wanderer

    It certainly seems possible to catch COVID on a bus. But you could also catch it in church, at school/college, in a store, at a concert. These sites are largely shut down in the US right now. But the clamor and the movement is to get them reopened, not to shut them forever. I feel more confident in the willingness of transit agencies to create safe social distancing than the willingness of churches, with their cloak of holiness.

    Public transit is a disfavored use in the US. In most American cities it is literally “an inferior good”–something you use more of if you’re poorer. Disfavored goods and programs get treated differently than favored ones. One writer pointed out that when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was dynamited, pundits proclaimed the end of public housing. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, the search was for the particular, technical problem (ultimately the “O ring”) which caused the problem. They didn’t call for the end of the program.

    So here’s the current fantasy in the U.S: All the white collar workers will work from home. This will leave plenty of room on the road, with or without transit. I can’t see this as the long run outcome. Never mind if the workers want to work from home, or if their employers want them to. But I do agree that declining housing prices in New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles would not be a world historic tragedy, so long as the cities don’t go into economic free fall.

    I’d guess that the hardest case for maintaining social isolation is school buses–whether operated by a school district or a transit agency–especially among middle and high schoolers.

  18. Michael

    However bad as our polices are related to public transportation, I’m pretty confident the catastrophic quagmires of american mass motoring are far worse. In no particular order: 1) coronavirus, 2) the popping of the “everything” asset bubble, 3) the long cycle decline of the American middle class, 4) global supply chain issues, 5) incredible funkiness in the energy markets, 6) fossil fuel depletion, and 7) a land use model that everyone hates.

    My predictions are far more apocalyptic. When this all said & done, what’s left of the middle class will be taking the bus. And what was the middle class will walking in the malarial drainage ditch on the side of a 8 lane stroad in the searing the georgia heat.

    • adirondacker12800

      Very reasonable people are predicting the purchase price of electric cars will be the same as internal combustion cars in a few years. Once the production ramps up we will be awash in cheap petroluem, that no one will want except for some niche uses like petrochemicals.

      • Michael

        I’m actually pretty bullish about electric vehicles. I think it’s probable that we will transition from lithium-ion on to a cheaper/slightly larger sodium-ion (or similar) in the next decade, and that will solve the cost problem pretty easily.

        But the issue to me is self-evident. We need an ENORMOUS mass-motoring middle class to support system that we currently have. We have the multifaceted issues of : 1) a shrinking middle class. 2) the upper middle class & upper classes that have moved into city cores and drive less. 3) while the wealthy suburbanites are getting old and driving less. An end result is not a whole of cars are going to be bought & trickling down to the masses.

        • adirondacker12800

          A very small percentage of them. Outside a very few select places, into condos with two or more parking spaces per unit.

        • Herbert

          The automotive sector will shed insane amounts of workers even if every internal combustion engine is replaced by electric.

          An internal combustion car needs far more components…

          • adirondacker12800

            An electric needs less parts in the drive train. There’s a big battery that someone has to make. The rest of the car is more or less the same whether it’s gasoline, diesel, electric or something more exotic.

          • Tonami Playman

            The components are not necessarily lower for EVs. It’s more of a shift from high precision, high velocity, and high stress components like valve train and piston sealing components to medium precision, low stress and stationary components for the thermal management systems and module connectors within the battery. In fact suppliers of HVAC components are foreseeing an increase in market share, while those of piston, valvetrain components would see a significant reduction. All other non powertrain related components remain the same as adirondacker stated.

          • Eric2

            It’s not just about manufacture. Car dealers and repairers are two massive job sectors likely to be decimated by EVs.

          • adirondacker12800

            The dealers selling mostly internal combustion cars will start selling more EVs and less ICE cars until they aren’t selling any ICE cars. Engines in ICE cars last and last and last. The other stuff that makes riding in a car nice will still keep breaking down and need to be repaired.

  19. Reedman Bassoon

    The US is moving forward in public transit:
    It was announced today that the 10 mile, $2.3 billion extension of BART into San Jose will begin passenger service on June 13. This is being done even though BART ridership is presently only 10% of its normal level.
    The next step, a 6 mile/$5.6 billion extension into downtown San Jose, has not broken ground yet.

    • Benjamin Turon

      Long-term I’m bullish on transit, trains, and electric motorcars in America. Technological and urban development change is hard taking decades to developed before — swoosh — the jet airliner wipes of ocean liners and long-distance trains. Both trolley and auto suburbs took decades to develop. Same will be true of electrification of transport and creation of walkable transit-oriented development. As Churchill said: Americans always do the right thing after exhausting every other possible action.

      Short-term I think in America that we’re all doomed! Mister Trump might be the end of us. Although he is only the titular head , the end result of America’s overall deepening malaise, a symptom and not the cause of the decline of our great republic. I hope that right now we’re hitting rock bottom in America, that its 1933 and not 1930, but that likely is not a safe bet to make… SAD!

    • Eric2

      That’s $1.2 billion per new stop on a preexisting above ground right-of-way. By far the most extreme cost escalation anywhere in the world. A sensible cost for such an extension would be about $100 million, not $2.3 billion. This is exactly why transit in the US will remain a failure.

  20. michaelrjames

    Incidentally, my discussion of that article in Science magazine (earlier comment on this thread) also applies to aviation. It is closer to the bus example Alon presents in that people are in fixed positions, confined space over long periods of time. For these reasons there has been a lot of pessimism about aviation recovering, maybe “forever”. But just as with public transit in Asia, the data doesn’t support such pessimism. Here’s an extract (again) from the Science piece:

    They happened in places where people shout or sing. And although Zumba classes have been connected to outbreaks, Pilates classes, which are not as intense, have not, Knight notes. “Maybe slow, gentle breathing is not a risk factor, but heavy, deep, or rapid breathing and shouting is.”

    Other than very young children (again, lucky that they don’t seem to be spreaders or superspreaders) or occasional drunken sporting teams/fans, planes are nothing like Zumba classes, gospel meetings or restaurants. There is a very strong social pressure for relative (in human terms, extreme) calm and quiet talking.
    This week, the CEO of Qantas (Alan Joyce) gave a fairly strong argument for returning to normal. I haven’t attempted to track down the source of some of his claims but he said no studied had identified planes as the source of transmission of SARS-Co-V2. Apparently even when contact tracing has identified that a superspreader flew on a crowded plane there was no evidence they did their superspreading on the plane (and planes and airlines have everything a contact-tracer/epidemiologist could want with id info and fixed seating etc). Where pilots or hostesses have been infected it was traced to other situations, eg. congregations of staff outside the plane. This is the equivalent of those MTA staff, many of whom didn’t get the disease from passengers but almost certainly from their own staff/lunch rooms or post-work bar sessions etc.
    Joyce also claimed that airflow in (his) planes already works well to control spread. The claim is that each pax is in a kind of silo with air coming in from above each pax and descending to extraction at the floor, mimicking a laminar flow cabinet used in bio-labs.
    Of course he’s a CEO desperate to rescue his company (and stock options) but he has a point. One thing that he doesn’t want to do, but should, is he wants to offer pax face masks as they board but doesn’t want to make them mandatory. This is where officialdom needs to step in but currently they remain obsessed with social distancing which, as Joyce explained, is totally infeasible on planes. He gave the example of a 180-seat plane only being able to have 22 pax under such guidelines, which he rightly says that airlines simply won’t run such flights.

    • Herbert

      If the volume and amount of talking play a role, there’d be a significant difference between the spread on the “quiet car” and others on the train…

    • Eric2

      “Other than very young children (again, lucky that they don’t seem to be spreaders or superspreaders) or occasional drunken sporting teams/fans, planes are nothing like Zumba classes, gospel meetings or restaurants.”

      Yeah, but planes are exactly like the Alon’s bus, on which over a third of the passengers got infected. Maybe the airflow makes a plane safer than a bus, but there’s no real evidence for that, just a CEO’s assertions.

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    • Eric2

      ” and splitting into two branch lines – one via Bnei Brak and one via Ramat Gan before rejoining in Givatayim ”

      Crazy!

  22. smooth indian

    The current crisis just gives the anti-transit crowd in North America reason to propagate their ideology. I don’t think the EU, Asia or North America for that matter is giving up on public transport. Rather we will see innovations in the advanced countries which will allow them to mange and reduce crowding in buses and trains especially during rush hour.
    Most out likely we will see some change in seating arrangements and new rules governing boarding/alighting and standing on public transport. Some transit agency might even go for system like priority boarding to manage access to trains.
    In countries like India, the crisis actually gives the authorities and planners a strong reason to move away from cramming more people in buses and trains. Our long distance express trains often end up carrying large numbers of passengers with unreserved tickets (which as cheap and subsidized) who end crowding those zones meant for passengers with reserved tickets. The authorities can now require reserved tickets for traveling on express trains; something that was unthinkable on account of gross populism. Demand based trains will also become more ubiquitous to cater to specific increases in demand during holiday seasons and for particular groups such as migrant workers. Short distance regional and suburban trains will also some changes to control crowding.

    • fjod

      So the consequence of this is that poor people can no longer move across the country? I can see reasons beyond ‘gross populism’ why this might not be a good idea.

      • smooth indian

        Poor people will be able to move across the country. Its just that they won’t be as straightforward as before. And no one knows if these measures will be permanent. It seems it won’t be as we will go back to normal once the crisis abates. Meanwhile, some of the poor indeed decided to trust their feet and walked hundreds of miles across the country to their native villages.
        Right now the initial bunch of trains allows for a more supervised travel with only confirmed reserved tickets. If people were allowed without reservations we would see massive overcrowding (social distancing be damned). Despite declarations of lockdown and insistence of social distancing we have seen umpteen examples of people crowding near shops/markets and sometimes even attacking police personnel who were enforcing the lockdown.

        • fjod

          Making cross-country trains harder to access so that fewer poorer people do so is functionally the same as stopping poor people from moving across the country. Justified in a pandemic maybe, but probably not an equitable way to continue after this passes.

    • Alon Levy

      Priority boarding is not compatible with a high-throughput urban transportation system. What’s compatible with a high-throughput urban transportation system is requiring passengers to wear masks while the authorities test, trace, and isolate patients in quarantine hotels. Test-trace-isolate is practiced in countries across the world’s income distribution, from Taiwan at the top to very poor countries in West Africa with experience in quarantine methods from the Ebola crisis. Western countries are too proud to learn from Asian success cases (not just Taiwan and Korea but also Vietnam and the Philippines), but India has no reason to be this arrogant.

      • smooth indian

        Priority Boarding in urban transport has not been proposed anywhere. Its just a figment of my (and perhaps others) imagination right now. It is obvious that the Indian authorities will have to follow successful policies from elsewhere and perhaps be creative themselves. I don’t think Indian govt or authorities are able to be arrogant in these times. But modest success sparks a ideological debate with different parties in different parts of India trying outdo one another.

  23. Coridon Henshaw

    According to https://twitter.com/ScottGottliebMD/status/1265087586315448320 floated on Twitter today, subway ridership in China is still only at 63% of historical levels. Everyone’s giving up on public transportation now, and for very a good reason.

    The reality is that if one infectious person boards a packed rail vehicle, at least one other passenger will die and at least a half dozen others will be permanently maimed by life-altering organ damage. This isn’t going to change unless highly effective vaccines and treatments are available, and that could take decades. Whatever first-generation vaccines might appear in the next few years will be ‘better than nothing’ but almost certainly not good enough to make getting into an enclosed, poorly-ventilated, crowded space anything other than a potential death sentence. In this environment, mass transit is dead and should stay dead.

    Urbanism advocates should not be choosing the idea of packing people in crowded spaces as a hill to die on because denying the reality of the dangers of the pandemic will both destroy urbanism’s credibility and, if followed, get many people killed.

    If public transit has a future, it’s in the form of heavily compartmentalized vehicles (like the old slam door coaches used by British Rail), self-driving taxis, or personal rapid transit (otherwise known as self-driving taxis on rails). If urbanism advocacy is to have a credible future, promoting these ideas is where it should focus its efforts.

    • Coridon Henshaw

      The HTML for the link in the post above has been mangled but should be comprehensible. Sorry about that.

    • Eric2

      Vaccines don’t have to be perfect. Even existing vaccines for things like smallpox aren’t perfect. They just have to be good enough to get R0 below 1, then the virus will die out.

    • Alon Levy

      Chinese subway ridership is going steadily back up. Ditto German subway ridership. In Seoul there was a dip but I think things are recovering too; in Taipei there was a smaller dip. Americans are convincing themselves subways are dangerous because that way it’s easier to say that America is fine and it’s just New York that screwed up, never mind very high infection rates in Michigan, Louisiana, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and other states without any public transit to speak of.

        • michaelrjames

          Eric2.
          No, that’s technically inaccurate.
          Subways are *potentially* dangerous.
          In East Asia they have adopted protocols that have clearly very effectively countered that danger.

      • Herbert

        Two out of Germany’s four subways are in the state with the strictest lockdown….

    • michaelrjames

      Coridon Henshaw is not the odd one out here. You Alon, me a few others on this site are. Below is an article in today’s The Conversation, by no less than a Professor of Future Urban Mobility, with diagrams showing how transit will have to cope with social distancing and an effective reduction to 26% of existing capacity, and completely unworkable systems like phone apps to tell riders which buses, trams or metro cars are ‘safe to board’. Yet, like CH above, not a single mention of masks.
      In tonight’s tv news they had an item about Tokyo and the mystery of how they have managed to have so much less effect of the virus. The many shots of transit and people on the streets and lanes and shops of Tokyo showed most people wearing masks, while the reporter was wearing a mask … but there wasn’t a single mention of masks in his report!
      On the current affairs show they had a feature on the changes to how offices will work: reduction in density of workers, alternating occupancy of desks, new cleaning regimens, more working from home etc, and that was it.

      Most of East Asia appears to be largely back to normal, yet in the west (well the Anglosphere for sure) there appears collective and near unanimous rejection of the one thing that makes that possible.

      https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-recovery-public-transport-is-key-to-avoid-repeating-old-and-unsustainable-mistakes-138415
      Coronavirus recovery: public transport is key to avoid repeating old and unsustainable mistakes
      Hussein Dia, 26 May 2020.

      Re-imagining our cities
      Cities are repurposing streets to meet higher demands for walking and cycling.
      But not everyone can walk or ride a scooter or bike to their destination. Public transport must remain at the heart of urban mobility. We will have to rethink public transport design to enable physical distancing, even though it reduces capacities.
      Public transport drivers need protection. Some responses such as boarding from back doors and sanitising rolling stock are needed but don’t reduce crowding. Crowding at platforms, bus and tram stops also has to be avoided.
      Crowding on public transport puts lives at risk. A recent study that looked at smartcard data for the Metro in Washington DC showed that, with the same passenger demand as before the pandemic, only three initially infected passengers will lead to 55% of the passenger population being infected within 20 days. This would have alarming consequences.
      Increasing capacities by running more services, where possible, will help. Staggering work hours will reduce peak demand. Transport demand management must also aim to reduce overall need for travel by having people continue to work from home if they can.
      Managing passenger flow and decreasing waiting times will also help avoid crowding. Passenger-counting technologies can be used to monitor passenger load restrictions, control flow and stagger ridership.
      We need to start trying new solutions using smart technologies. Passengers could use apps that let them find out how crowded a service is before boarding, or to book a seat in advance.
      Other solutions to trial include thermal imaging at train stations and bus depots to identify passengers with fever. There will be many technical and deployment challenges, but trials can identify issues and ease the transition.

      Meanwhile things are getting even funkier in the US. Another tv news item featured multiple incidents of mask-rage, in supermarkets etc. And this:

      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/25/corona-rage-covid-19-masks-jessa-crispin
      Corona rage is boiling over. To ease tensions, masks should be mandatory
      Messaging about masks has been inconsistent and contradictory. This confusion is leading to angry altercations with strangers
      Jessa Crispin, Mon 25 May 2020

      A man shot a cook at a Waffle House in Colorado, after the customer was told he must have a face mask to enter the restaurant. When his childish attempt to re-enter holding the mask in his hand was rebuffed – I literally have a face mask, what is your problem – he created an altercation that ended in a non-fatal shooting.
      A church was burned down in Mississippi, after the pastor tried to sue the city because of its interference with its services. The pastor was still gathering people for worship, despite the stay-at-home order and the spread of the coronavirus. After the church burned, someone found graffiti that read: “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic].”
      A man was arrested in Missouri after he licked a bunch of items at the Walmart while yelling: “Who’s scared of coronavirus?” A woman was arrested in California for licking groceries. A woman coughed on some produce in Pennsylvania as a “prank”. A cop “jokingly” coughed on residents in Baltimore.

      Also all over the news is the 98th episode of the Dom and Boris show. I seriously hope it is better in Germany (and France etc) because it looks like the Anglosphere is aiming for a collective Darwin Award.

      • johndmuller

        I must confess to rooting for Darwin to get a move on while watching news footage of know nothings crowding in pools and beaches and other places while strutting their mask-LESS-ness vociferously.

        • michaelrjames

          The problem, of course, is that the majority of those people are young(-ish) and so don’t suffer any personal consequences. But some of them will turn into spreaders and superspreaders and infect the more susceptible segment of the population.

          Having said that, it is not clear if beaches, even fairly densely populated beaches, are particularly high transmission situations. The reason is due to the sun, openness, and heat (the sand heats up). The so-called Bondi Beach hotspots were traced to a few parties on the edges of the beach, rather than on the beach itself. However, clearly this distinction is a bit too nuanced for the authorities to be confident to message correctly, as well as it being seemingly impossible to stop this particular age group from partying. Thus the blanket bans which this sub-group of beach users brought on everyone (including at its peak, even solitary walkers which made no sense at all). I actually believe parks and beaches are perfectly fine for even large numbers of people to use, as long as they don’t shout or get in each others faces. Regrettably the widespread bans on everywhere during the lockdown is partly what has produced this mindless backlash amongst some people. Paradoxically the rhetoric on personal freedoms has turned into a liability producing less freedom (of movement) than the East Asians. And more unnecessary death and economic disruption. I can’t see the US avoiding a worsening situation, ie. a so-called second wave, which is likely to hit in late-June to mid-July.

          • adirondacker12800

            When it’s warm. The thermometer on my shaded porch got up to 90 today. 32 C is quite toasty. Almost worth putting the air conditioning on. I thought the warm made it go away.

          • michaelrjames

            I thought the warm made it go away.

            It does, or at least is one relevant factor.
            The problem arises when that very factor induces people to hold beach parties, or pool & bbq or block parties, where people are in very close proximity and are talking animatedly if not shouting to be heard over the crowd.

          • adirondacker12800

            So how come it’s stable or getting worse in states that are warm and better in states that are cold and damp?
            What else do you want to cherry pick?

          • michaelrjames

            Another futile cycle? To give something to RM to shout about?

            The colder northern states were the first affected. Note that CA would have had as many imported cases but has suffered the least, part of which IMO can be attributed to their weather, and partly (but less than claimed) to their policy responses.
            Now, it has inevitably spread to the rest of the US including those red states which coincidentally happen to be in hotter regions (again exception in all this is CA). Those red states and their dumb ideological governors have only reluctantly and tardily introduced control measures such as lockdown, hence the increase. The onset of summer may yet play a moderating role, ie. it may not get as bad as it otherwise could have. Also the personal irresponsible behaviour of red-staters as described by Jessa Crispin.

          • adirondacker12800

            Or Californians all drive to work. But then so do Alabamans and Montgomery has run out of ICU beds.

          • johndmuller

            It’s not just the odds that the young revelers won’t have to pay much of Darwin’s butcher bill that are irksome, it is also that the vacation destination states (who arguably have a good economic reason to want reopening – too bad they are shirking so much of their prevention responsibilities) are somewhat spared the consequences of the infections they help spread – especially to visitors who go back home (to further spread it there) mostly before they get to be contagious/symptomatic in the vacation states.

            Well, sooner or later, the numbers will catch up to the vacation states and turn them into bad destination ideas and as for the young revelers, being a dumb-ass will catch up to you soon enough in some other way.

          • Herbert

            Old People facilities get brutal death rates once the virus is in there.

            This does not bode well for Florida…

          • michaelrjames

            Agreed.
            But the East Asians and ANZ largely avoided that. Here there were several retirement homes that were affected including one that accounted for the largest number of deaths at a single locus. It was due to an asymptomatic nurse who spread it around 4 different homes she worked in. Turns out she wasn’t totally asymptomatic and she knew she had some kind of URTI but a feature of the staff working in these places is that they are often employed on contract basis and don’t get sick pay (or holiday pay). This kind of thing crept in over the past 20 years, beginning with the detestable Howard who would have reduced half the nation’s workers to serfdom if his WorkChoices hadn’t been an absurd overreach (lost him the election and gave Labor the mandate to roll the worst of it back).

            Anyway, I am sure Florida has the same issues, or worse, and has had enormous lead time to avoid this problem. But with that Republican thickhead as governor ….

      • Lee Ratner

        The American Right has been using Covid-19 as part of their anti-transit and anti-city bias while at the same time arguing it is not a big thing and we should reopen. Being the opportunists they always are, they are using it to argue against things they don’t like though. I really don’t understand the anti-transit feelings of the American Right. It is really unique among all center-right and far right movements in that regard. American Rightists simply hate transit in total and want it destroyed.

          • michaelrjames

            Thatcher was notoriously and ideologically anti-transit, shutting down BR’s tilt-train R&D (sold to Italians), writing specific legislation to prevent any government money going to Eurotunnel (explaining in part the 12-year delay in building HS1) and actually closing down Ken Livingstone’s (Mark I) London council because of his Fair Fares policy for the London Underground. It was not representative of her party as conservatives have usually supported rail, though the post-Thatcher austerity mindset means it is hard for them to commit to projects. However, Cameron then the succession of clowns since have pushed ahead with CrossRail and HS2.

            Slate ran a piece on Why do conservatives hate trains so much? As so often today, it is really a misuse of the term conservative and should really read “reactionaries” or “Far-Right Wingers”, like the irrational anti-transit Koch Bros. I’m pretty sure the people building Brightline consider themselves conservatives.

          • fjod

            It started under the Tories, but most of the cuts actually happened under Labour, who were perfectly happy to see them through.

          • michaelrjames

            Not true. It was under Blair’s Nu-Labour.
            Equally most re-nationalisations are happening under Conservatives which must mean there are severe deficiencies in their free-market philosophies that it should only be retained if it makes a profit.

        • Coridon Henshaw

          I really don’t understand the anti-transit feelings of the American Right. It is really unique among all center-right and far right movements in that regard.

          To a first approximation, after the Republican Party adopted Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy, the American right is composed of two factions: the social darwinists and the racists. In countries with proportional representation they would likely stand under different party banners, but under first-past-the-post, they both inhabit the Republican party. These factions each have their own reasons for hating transit.

          The social Darwinists believe that public money should only be used to enrich those who are at least moderately well off. Any public service that doesn’t increase wealth concentration is seen a waste of money. This is a revealed preference, rather than a stated preference, but the pattern in what kind of public spending these people support is very clear. These people oppose transit because, outside of a very few cities, American transit is a service for the poor that is supported by wealthier taxpayers. As such, transit pushes money in the wrong direction as far as the social Darwinists are concerned.

          A sub-faction of the social Darwinists, the kleptocrats, believe that the only legitimate function of government is their personal enrichment. These people do not support transit because the amount of money spent on transit is too low to make it an attractive target for legal self-dealing when compared to other poorly policed sources of money, such as DHS and Pentagon contracting.

          The racists don’t support public goods that are used by non-whites. Since much transit use, outside of a very few cities, in the US is by non-whites, the racists are opposed to transit on principle.

          • Lee Ratner

            I suppose the long history of American anti-urbanism is also part of this. Since the American right always saw the small town and later, the sprawling suburb, as the abode of real true Americans and transit is mainly useful in big cities, transit is by definition non-American.

      • Coridon Henshaw

        Meanwhile things are getting even funkier in the US. Another tv news item featured multiple incidents of mask-rage, in supermarkets etc.

        This may be seen as alarmist now, but I think the American response to the 2020 pandemic will be seen by future historians as to the American empire what the year 410 was to the Roman Empire. It’s not the end, but it’s an inflection point on a steepening declining trend.

        The fact that these human plague rats are not just tolerated, but encouraged, by American national elites is reflective of an erosion of social cohesion and a collapse of sense of common purpose that is likely to be irreparable.

        Whatever parts of the world survive the pandemic and global warming will belong to the Chinese.

        God help us all.

  24. Pingback: Post-Pandemic Transit and Offices, Remote Work Reducing Rents, and More - Urban Reform Institute

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