Sit‐down restaurants and bars have been shut down. Public officials are discouraging or even forbidding people from doing “unnecessary travel,” even if it is to visit a second home where they might be able to socially distance themselves better than in their first, more urban home. All sorts of other rules are being passed, all supposedly for our own good.
So why are urban transit systems still running? A 2018 study found that “mass transportation systems offer an effective way of accelerating the spread of infectious diseases.” A 2011 study found that people who use mass transit were nearly six times more likely to have acute respiratory infections than those who don’t. Not surprisingly, a study published a few days ago found that New York City subways were “a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle — of coronavirus infection.”
Transit agencies say they are helping “essential workers” go about their business. But if they are so essential, isn’t it important to find them a safe way of getting to work? If we truly cared about people’s safety, then transit services should have shut down at the same time we closed other non‐essential businesses and asked people to stay at home.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that 44 percent of all transit rides in 2019 took place in the New York‐northern New Jersey urban area and, at last count, 45 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities were recorded in this same area. When I pointed this out to Hawaiian transportation engineer Panos Prevedouros, he did a more detailed analysis showing a strong state‐by‐state correlation between transit and coronavirus.
Unfortunately, the transit lobby has successfully turned government‐subsidized transit into a sacred cow. Transit is supposedly greener than driving when in fact it’s an energy hog. Transit is supposedly needed to help poor people get to work when in fact the people most likely to commute by transit are those earning more than $75,000 a year.
When the pandemic took away most of transit’s customers, instead of shutting down, which would have been the responsible thing to do, transit agencies demanded that Congress give them $25 billion, tripling federal support to transit this year. Thanks to transit’s sacred cow status, Congress agreed without any serious debate.
Effectively, Congress rewarded the agencies for spreading disease. It would have been better to use that money to help transit‐dependent essential workers buy a car so they could have a safe way of getting to work.
Now transit agencies are beginning to fret that they’ll need even more money soon. Instead, it’s time to shut down transit systems for the duration, and start a debate about what kind of transportation we will need with the pandemic is over.