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Can the MTA Convince New Yorkers the Subways are Safe Again?

It seems like a quaint era, back when the public service ads on the subway dealt with concerns like manspreading, bag ladies and dancers doing acrobatic tricks. 

Now, the subway — which has survived two world wars, hurricanes, and the city’s near bankruptcy — is facing a virulent disease that has left many New Yorkers wondering when the transportation system they took for granted will be safe to use again.

For the first time in its 115-year existence, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority deliberately suspended its service overnight to disinfect trains and stations to curb the spread of a contagion that has hospitalized more than 49,000 New Yorkers and claimed 20,000 lives since March, according to the city.

Transit leaders promised the disruption would be temporary but did not project when trains would once again run on a normal schedule.

“I don’t want this to be a permanent shutdown; nobody does,” New York City Transit president Sara Feinberg told Brian Lehrer on Thursday. “We want to get to the other side of this pandemic and service will come back. But I think we owe it to our riders and our workforce to do everything we can to keep this system safe.”

New York became the global epicenter of COVID-19 this spring for many reasons. The very attributes that attract people to living a cultured urban landscape — great restaurants, packed entertainment venues, and spacious open plan headquarters all reachable by rapid affordable transit running at all hours of the night — suddenly became risk factors for the exponential growth of a highly contagious virus.

“We have a society in New York where you’ve got densely packed people living in a city with a highly adapted transportation system and when you have an infectious threat, it’s scary,” Joseph Vinetz, a Yale Medicine professor and infectious disease specialist, told Commercial Observer. “There’s no place that’s denser than the subway and the air circulation is terrible.”

It didn’t help matters that federal officials eschewed wearing face masks in public in late February while Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo reassured New Yorkers to continue their normal routines as the virus spread undetected despite warning signs of its lethality on the West Coast. The mayor even worked out at his favorite Park Slope YMCA the morning before the state’s order closing restaurants and gyms went into effect.

Passengers began to skip the subway once the coronavirus arrived in New York and sent hundreds, then thousands, of people to the hospital.

By the second week of March, subway use dropped 18 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Once de Blasio closed city schools and Cuomo ordered non-essential workers to remain home, ridership plunged 60 percent. Only 1.8 million passengers crossed subway turnstiles on March 17 compared with 5.6 million in 2019, MTA records said

The MTA struggled to retain its workforce as ridership sagged and the virus infected workers. Nearly 6,000 transit workers, or 8 percent of its staff, called out sick or were quarantined from exposure to coronavirus as reported by the Wall Street Journal, forcing the agency to slash service by 25 percent on March 24 according to NBC. So far 109 MTA workers have died.

By early April, the MTA was in real trouble. MTA Chairman Pay Foye told WCBS 880 that subway ridership plummeted 92 percent while 95 percent of passengers completely abandoned Long Island Rail and 97 percent of riders left Metro North. Bridge and tunnel traffic, a key source of MTA revenue, also shrunk 63 percent. 

Ridership appears to have bottomed out. There are currently about 435,000 daily subway riders, who largely consist of essential workers headed to hospitals, grocery stores, and other frontline businesses, advocates calculate.

The loss of fares and expected decline of state and local tax revenue left the MTA with an estimated deficit of $8.5 billion according to a report put out by McKinsey & Company. The transit authority asked Congress for $4 billion and received $3.8 billion in federal stimulus money in addition to the $1 billion it borrowed in credit to cover its shortfall. 

That still may not be enough. Janno Lieber, the chief development officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said that the agency still needs another $3.9 billion in federal funding and was worried about a bond downgrade, in CO’s virtual transportation event held last month. MTA officials forecast losses of $8.9 billion if ridership remains low through 2021, although President Trump tweeted on Thursday the federal government would begin sending aid to the authority.

“These are extreme circumstances. The good news is that as daunting as this situation is, it should be temporary,” TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried told CO. “If it gets handled well, it’s not going to leave a lasting imprint. But if it’s handled poorly, it could be a downward spiral with lasting impacts.”

There’s no telling when riders will return, either. The subway system has not sustained any damage like it did during Hurricane Sandy, the last time the system temporarily closed. A more apt comparison may be Taiwan’s train system where ridership fell 50 percent during the height of the SARS epidemic in March 2003. Straphangers came back three months later once the outbreak was contained.

But some transportation advocates believe it could take 12 to 18 months for ridership to approach pre-coronavirus levels.

“The thing that will bring people back to transit is the knowledge there’s a treatment so people aren’t dying or there’s a vaccine. And that’s out of control of the MTA,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign executive director Nick Sifuentes told CO. “The part that is within the MTA’s control is doing the best job they can to keep the system clean and safe, and set rules for customers so they are not contributing to the problem.”

The overnight sanitation is the first of many steps the MTA is taking to wash away the stigma of taking public transportation in a pandemic. 

Each night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., transit workers spray disinfectant through cars parked at the end of terminals and in rail yards. Workers wipe down poles and other surfaces passengers touch regularly, as well as wash equipment, turnstiles, and platforms in the system’s 424 stations. 

Cleaners will also be using anti-microbial treatments designed to keep surfaces germ-free for a longer period of time, as well as examining whether ultraviolet light technology can eradicate COVID on subway surfaces, and trying out spraying and fogging machines to speed up the task, New York City Transit officials said. So far about 700 cleaners have been able to clean every train car in its fleet over a 24-hour period.

Sanitation is a daunting task but it is a crucial step toward reducing the risk of infection while the pandemic is still raging.

“You have to disinfect subway cars and figure out how to do it so you can say to people who use the subways, ‘Don’t worry it’s safe,’” Cuomo said at a briefing on Tuesday.

To serve the 11,000 people, many of whom are essential workers, who rely on late-night trains during the city’s shut down, the MTA added 344 buses to run overnight. The agency is also boosting frequency along 61 routes, making local buses run every 20 minutes and express buses run every half hour.

But the pandemic-induced closure is forcing the MTA, the state, and city to grapple with the region’s long standing homelessness problem that could undermine their efforts to reopen the economy.

Police steered 252 homeless people out of subway stations to the street on the first night of the closure. About half accepted shelter services but others refused to go, saying they were reluctant to enter large shelters where coronavirus infections have been raging. 

“Given the threat of COVID in the shelter system, many people who had been sleeping in the subway were not interested in that option,” Coalition for the Homeless policy director Jacquelyn Simone told CO. “We spoke to some people who had already been in the shelter system who felt unsafe there because of the crowding and lack of social distancing.”

Instead, people piled onto MTA buses, or waited near terminal entrances or nearby bank vestibules to reenter the subway stations that opened at 5 a.m., Simone observed.

The same scene occurred the next night when outreach teams approached 361 homeless New Yorkers and 218 of them accepted help, an MTA spokeswoman said. 

City officials have tried to limit the spread of COVID in shelters by placing thousands of homeless individuals into vacant hotel rooms. But homelessness advocates say the city is not finding safe places for the roughly 2,000 people who regularly sleep in subways and should match them with hotel spaces immediately.

“It seems very cruel to push people off the subways without giving them some place better to go. Offering them a trip to a congregate shelter where COVID is spreading rapidly is not sufficient,” Simone said. “People sleeping on the subways don’t want to be hopeless and stay on the subways, but unfortunately that might be where people feel the safest.”

New York City Transit president Sara Feinberg agrees that the city’s empty hotel stock is a good option for people who need a place to stay. But the subway shouldn’t be a last resort for the homeless anymore, she said.

“It’s not fair to our workforce or our ridership and it’s not the right way to treat people who are down on their luck and need help,” Feinberg told WNYC. “No one wants to sleep on a train. We have to have alternatives for folks.”

If state and city agencies can’t get a handle on the homeless crisis, and trains don’t look any cleaner than they did before COVID, riders may be reluctant to return to a system they believe is not sanitary.

“When New Yorkers got squeamish before COVID about homeless people on the trains, it was only squeamishness, but that has all changed in the last two months,” Sifuentes said. “Forcing them off for a few hours a night is preventing nothing if those same folks who are sick are getting right back into the trains and the platforms as soon as it’s open. It solves no problem.”

The MTA’s most significant challenges to maintain a safe system will be getting passengers to follow public health guidelines and reducing overcrowding.

Cuomo passed an executive order on April 15 requiring anyone going out in public to wear a face mask when they are unable to stay a safe distance away from others. That extends to the subways, where many straphangers are already wearing masks, the MTA pointed out.

But transportation and public health advocates want the MTA to require all passengers who want to enter the subway to wear a face covering. 

“That’s a bare minimum ask. If you are crossing the turnstile, you are wearing a mask. And if you are not wearing a mask, you should be forced to leave,” Sifuentes said. “The MTA can enforce social distancing and require masks in the system, but it will be up to passengers to self-police at some level.”

The MTA should also consider distributing masks and hand sanitizer for passengers within stations, public health officials say. It’s easy to stay away from people when trains are running at 10 percent capacity but mandating that people wear face masks as trains and platforms start to fill up again will help everyone feel safe.

“When I ride a subway and if someone doesn’t have a mask, I don’t feel comfortable,” Robyn Gershon, a professor at New York University’s School of Public Health, told CO. “If passengers wear masks, and if the MTA workers wear masks, and they continue to clean the subway frequently, and people use hand gel when you come off the subway, that will help us a lot.”

The greatest risk of COVID spread on the subway is when people breathe on each other for long periods of time in close proximity. The state’s shut down will keep the subway at low levels for months but enforcing social distancing once ridership creeps upward is a near-impossible task.

“Crowding is the lynchpin of the subway question — are you close to someone, is someone on top of you, are you jam packed. That is something that people feel least comfortable going back to,” Riders Alliance spokesman Danny Pearlstein told CO. “New Yorkers are accustomed to packing trains like sardines, but it’s hard to imagine that happening for a very long time to come.”

Enforcement of social distancing rules has occurred unevenly. Police officers detained a 22-year-old woman carrying her baby because she wasn’t wearing a mask at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway station Wednesday, an incident the mayor condemned tweeting, “no one wants to see an interaction turn into this.”

Pearlstein believes the NYPD shouldn’t be solely responsible for safely bringing back the subway.

“Peer enforcement is the ideal here, backed by frequent enough service so everyone is able to socially distance,” he said. “The governor said he can’t force everyone to wear a mask. The police can’t do it either and having them struggle to do it on the spot invites abuse.” 

The easiest way the MTA can make stations less crowded is to run more trains or restrict the number of people entering stations. The MTA has existing technologies such as communications-based train control, ultra-wideband radio transmissions, and its contactless fare payment system, to run trains as frequently as once every 60 seconds and estimate how many people are on platforms and how crowded approaching train cars are.

Sharing that data with the public will give people the ability to choose between a less crowded train or a bus to get to their destination, advocates say.

“The MTA can use transit wireless wifi to get a sense in real time how many people are on the network, and that can give you the passenger flow,” Sifuentes said. “They should know with regularity when trains are coming and estimate how many people get on the platform.”

MTA officials are looking at how to use all these tools to help with crowd control as well as opening windows and improving ventilation systems within bus and trains to improve air flow, officials said.

City and state officials can play a part in reducing crowding on the subway. Both Cuomo and de Blasio encouraged workers to telecommute when they implemented the shut down in early March. Once it is lifted they can continue to require their workforce to work from home and work with business leaders to stagger hours so that trains aren’t packed during the morning and evening rush. 

“I don’t know that it’s going to be possible to have rush hours,” Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told the New York Times earlier this month. 

And transportation officials can easily set up a network of bus-only lanes allowing buses to run more frequently while providing space for ambulances to speed through the city without traffic. Other cities including Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington D.C. have painted temporary lanes or added cones and barrels to demarcate emergency zones — a project that can be done quickly and at low cost.

“This is an extended emergency and there are still hundreds of thousands of people who need transit to get to jobs,” Fried said. “The city would really fall to pieces without them and you don’t want to get into a situation where traffic starts to bounce back and congestion clogs bus service essential workers rely on.”

People may be more inclined to take cars, bikes, or buses to get to work as the city reopens over the coming months, but any reopening plan must include the subway’s revitalization front and center, advocates say. It remains the engine of the city’s economy.

“You can’t live in the city and expect to go into an office and not take the subway,” Sifuentes said. “The geometry of the street is such that there is only so much room for cars. If people are saying they can’t take the subway, then maybe they should move to a different city.”

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