Cities are living things. They live, they breathe, and they can die. Like all living things, what at once appears a singular, static unit is really the sum of a ceaseless array of living, moving parts. Something has to move those parts around. In the body, it’s the cardiovascular system that pumps blood and oxygen and nutrients around. Should the cardiovascular system fail, there’s little hope for the rest.

In cities, people move via transit. More people commute via mass transit in New York City—over 55 percent—than any other American city. 

At first thought, mass transit seems fundamentally incompatible with a world defined by a viral disease—but not necessarily. The coronavirus is more complicated than that. 

A closer look at transit policy across major cities helps us understand the particular failures of American institutions in tackling the coronavirus. In fact, the oil slick mystery liquid of a subway platform makes an apt mirror to American politics as a whole.

Source: MTA Open Data, visualized in R using GGPlot2.

I’ll put it in perspective. On any given weekday, over five million people ride the NYC subway, with nearly two million more on buses. NYC transit is an economic ecosystem with a weekday population larger than 35 states. Well, it was.

Subway ridership in the city has dropped approximately 90 percent from pre-coronavirus levels. For scale, that’s a decrease in ridership almost twice the population of Chicago. In terms of public health, the sudden, drastic, and sustained drop is a good thing. Lower ridership is less mutual exposure on the subway.  A crowded subway train, six months ago, was a picture of efficiency—now, it’s a picture of disaster lying in wait.

But it’s not that simple. Mass transit isn’t an inherent public health disaster. At least, it doesn’t have to be. Case in point: Seoul, South Korea.

To date, South Korea—a country of 51 million people—has had 269 deaths of coronavirus. By comparison, Corona, Queens—a neighborhood of roughly 110,000 people—has lost 384 people to the virus, more than any other neighborhood in New York. Seoul’s daily new cases have never exceeded 50.

With the prior information in mind, take a guess: how many people rode the Seoul metro the day after their largest outbreak on March 10? 10,000? Five? Zero?

Try 5.2 million. In fact, workday metro ridership in Seoul hasn’t dropped below five million at any point this year, and it’s steadily increased from it’s early-March minimum.

Source: Seoul Data Plaza, visualized in R using GGPlot2.

How? No, it wasn’t Confucianism. South Korea’s astoundly effective response to the coronavirus is the culmination of proactive, competent intervention, and the employment of an ever-expanding toolkit of anti-virus measures.

Some of that action took place directly in the metro: widespread, immediate dissemination of guidelines for minimizing transmission, disinfecting stations and cars, requiring masks, running more trains at rush hour to reduce congestion, and isolating infected workers. And beyond the metro, testing, tracking, isolation, masks, temperature sensors, cooperation between public and private sectors, and coordination at the national level have all been key factors in South Korea’s success.

Where subways fit into the puzzle isn’t exactly clear, however. “First, there’s a debate about whether subways increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” said Jewel Park, a researcher at the College of Medicine of Seoul University and author of a recent peer-reviewed study on subway ridership and social distancing in Seoul. “Second, Seoul has never had a ‘serious’ outbreak of COVID-19… so one could think that Seoul could get by with a moderately decreased subway ridership.”

Park, who lives in Seoul, noted that his “experience on the subway has not been that different, except for the wearing of masks; the carriages seemed slightly less crowded, but definitely not enough to stay two meters away from each other.”

Compared to South Korea, the American conception of what it’ll take to beat coronavirus, and what tools we have (or could have) to do it with, is severely limited. This isn’t surprising. A stunted, parochial vision of what is both possible and necessary to provide for people—from healthcare to education to protecting them from a pandemic and economic depression—is perhaps the defining characteristic of American politics.

Social distancing, while absolutely necessary in lieu of greater institutional action, is not the entire fight. It’s not nearly enough. Transit helps us understand why.

Americans have been tasked with the atomizing task of distancing themselves from one another, a convenient strategy that allows the government to narrow blame to the individual level. I’m not advocating we forgo this responsibility, but we shouldn’t settle for it.

Let me be clear, though. The lesson from Seoul—aside from the admission that there are so many variables, so many unknowns, and so many lessons—is not that everyone should all hop back on the NYC subway tomorrow. 

New York City has been hit far, far worse than any other city in the nation largely because our officials (at every level) waited far too long to tell people to stay home, and have squandered every opportunity since to combat or meaningfully contain the virus.

Sans greater intervention—testing, isolation, contact tracing, etc.—we should be concerned that NYC is starting to allow more and more movement without any cogent plan—beyond questionably effective cleaning—to make public transit safe for riders or workers, 98 of whom have already died from COVID-19.

Even if the specific link between COVID-19 transmission and subway environments is tenuous and largely a mystery, people don’t ride trains for the sake of riding trains. They go places.

“I think subway ridership reflects more of the mentality of its users, asking themselves: ‘is it safe to go out?’” says Park, “and that change in mentality may be more important than the change in subway ridership itself.” A rigorous transit plan means little if passengers ride sterile trains to pestilent offices, restaurants, or churches.  

“The federal government has a lot to do with helping marshal PPE or establishing clear guidelines on what we should be doing,” said Eric Goldwyn, a research scholar at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. “[The MTA’s] expertise is in operating the subway, not coronavirus. The expectation that they should be able to solve that problem is extremely unfair.” 

After all, trains are only as healthy as the city they connect, and transit systems are but one node in an expansive network of institutions, both public and private, which have a necessary role to play in containing the virus.

In an article in Citylab, “How U.S. Public Transit Can Survive Coronavirus”,  Goldywn and Alon Levy, also a scholar at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, outlined a number of tangible steps they believe transit agencies should take to protect riders, workers, and transit infrastructure itself—from coating hardware in virus-killing copper to capital projects and long-term service restoration to pre-coronavirus levels.   

Levy and Goldwyn both see another crisis on the horizon: austerity. And they’re not alone. With massive shortfalls in both farebox and tax revenue, transit systems across the country are in crisis, with many reasonably afraid that the $25 billion designated from the federal government will not be enough. Transit authorities need to be able to operate without fear of bankruptcy, to make sure that temporary cuts don’t turn into permanent ones, and take any and all measures necessary to protect the people they serve.

The concluding lesson here is to consider who is hurt most—both economically and physically—when institutions like public transit are allowed to fail. 

The above-ground 7 train screeches down Roosevelt Avenue through Corona, Queens, rattling windows as it passes. Corona, Queens is a low-income, overwhelmingly Latinx neighborhood made up of working-class families. Blue collar families can’t work from home. Communities like Corona are most dependent on public transit to get to jobs that are least likely to be able to be carried out remotely. Low-income, black and brown communities have borne the brunt of the coronavirus, and they will bear the brunt of a haphazard reopening.

Effective mass transit is the lifeline of a city. It should not deliver death.

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