Environmentally Friendly Transportation: Mass Transit

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued general guidelines for safely using public transportation during COVID-19. The CDC recommends that passengers limit touching surfaces that are frequently used, such as kiosks, digital interfaces, ticket machines, turnstiles, handrails, restroom surfaces, elevator buttons, and benches. If you must touch these surfaces, the CDC advises washing your hands or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer immediately after. The CDC also recommends using the same hand hygiene after exiting the transit station or stop, and practicing social distancing as much as possible while commuting.

Over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in New York come from the transportation sector – the most of any sector. In an effort to curb the state’s emissions, address public health issues caused by air pollution, and combat climate change, New York must decrease its daily vehicle miles traveled and switch to green transportation. Decreasing the number of vehicles on the road also works to mitigate New York City’s extreme congestion problem. Various plans are in place or are being developed to address this issue: legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters, connecting bike lanes, bus lane camera enforcement, congestion pricing, bike subsidies, and promoting public transportation. However, COVID-19 has interrupted the flow of travel. The pandemic also changed the way that we think about public transportation, given that it is often overcrowded, under-ventilated, and cramped. Subway ridership in NYC fell 93% at the peak of the city’s infections in March, and many employees fell sick with the virus. Many commuters have opted for other means of travel: bike shops have reported a large increase in bicycle sales, and Citi Bike usage increased 67% throughout March.

In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is preparing for the city to start reopening. To routinely clean the subway, the MTA has had to regularly schedule service shutdowns for the first time in over a century of operation. Every night, the network of trains are closed from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Transit officials are using traditional and experimental disinfecting agents during the shutdown cleanings. As an alternative to the closures, the city has increased overnight bus service by 76% and now offers free taxi and for-hire vehicle trips for certain commuters when booked in advance.

On June 8th, the MTA updated its service in accordance with NYC’s Phase 1 reopening. In NYC, the subway resumed normal weekday subway service (with the exception of the nightly closings). Metro-North Railroad service is still operating at reduced capacity, and many ticket counters remain closed. Some lines are completely shut down, and others are charging off-peak fares. The Long Island Rail Road is using a similar protocol, but its service lines are running without closures. The MTA is encouraging riders to engage with digital platforms and smartphone apps and to call customer service hotlines for information in absence of ticket counters.

Recently, the MTA announced pilot programs to install hand sanitizer dispensers, hand out masks to commuters, apply floor markings and decals to encourage social distancing, and deploy platform controllers to prevent crowding. Transit officials have received criticism for their lack of concrete action and planning. In response, the MTA issued a 13-point plan, which includes:

  • Increasing service
  • Cleaning and disinfecting
  • Testing innovative cleaning solutions
  • Mandating and handing out face coverings
  • Providing PPE for employees
  • Enhancing safety and security
  • Deploying hand sanitizer
  • Installing floor markings and arrows
  • Encouraging employers to stagger business hours to distribute ridership
  • Continuing to rollout contactless payments
  • Launching a daily ridership data dashboard

Seoul may provide an early example of how a public transportation network can rebuild itself after COVID-19 and inspire commuter confidence. Buses and subways were running at normal schedules even in February, during the peak of the virus, and no cases of coronavirus transmission from public transportation usage have been reported by the transit ministry. The city credits deep-cleaning robots, machines that spray antiseptic solutions, sanitation workers outfitted in proper protective gear, and intensive tracing efforts with its success. Seoul also uses drones to disinfect hard-to-reach surfaces in cars and stations. Tracing is done with in-person interviews and using phone location and credit card data. If an individual with coronavirus uses public transport, every individual in every subway car and station is identified and subject to disinfection. And for transportation workers, isolation rooms with medical staff are provided in case anyone develops symptoms.

Similarly, Hong Kong rolled out disinfecting robots in March, accompanied by posters with the reassuring slogan “Fighting the virus, traveling with ease.” Transportation staff works in two separate teams that switch between working at home and in offices. In Taipei, Taiwan, the city plans to disinfect all of its subway stations daily, the equipment passengers touch every four hours, and trains every two hours in the event of an outbreak. The city also uses noninvasive thermometers to scan riders’ temperatures. In Shenzhen, China, the bus fleet is disinfected after each trip and each bus operates at 50% capacity. Buses are being retrofitted with air-conditioning filters and window vents, all of which are cleaned routinely to increase ventilation. In Shanghai and Moscow, ultraviolet light is used to disinfect buses when they are not in use.