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Clean Transport

Pandemics & Public Transportation — Can They Co-Exist?

Public transportation may well be one of the casualties of the coronavirus pandemic. There is simply no way hordes of people can pack together in sealed transportation devices and avoid the effects of this and other pandemics.

Public transportation and social distancing are impossible to reconcile. To be economically viable, buses, trains, and subways must pack lots of people into confined spaces so they can be whisked from Point A to Point B efficiently. In Tokyo, the subway system hires people to cram more commuters into cars in order to maximize efficiency. But viruses and other diseases thrive under such crowded conditions.

NYC subway map

Image credit: MTA

The present coronavirus pandemic is forcing public transportation agencies into crisis mode. In most US cities, ridership is down 90% or more, which means revenue from fares has gone over a cliff, but the cost of maintaining systems continues unabated. It’s not possible to simply roll up a transportation system and store it away until times improve. To make matters worse, those systems are facing rising costs due to the need to purchase protective devices like masks and gloves for workers as well as ramping up cleaning and disinfection procedures.

The result is staggering losses totaling billions of dollars. Where will the money come from to keep America’s public transportation systems operating? And how do you keep the people who use them safe from infection? Those are thorny questions with no easy answers.

Who Needs Public Transportation?

The question America needs to ask right now is, do we need public transportation at all? Many see it as a drain on public resources that mainly benefits low income people. There are palpable ripples of racism and class consciousness that run through the public transportation discussion.

Doug Johnson, the transportation planning manager at the San Francisco Planning department, tells the Washington Post public transportation riders are often lower income, minority groups who may not own cars and who rely on transit for access to opportunities like jobs and schools. A recent study finds half of all deaths from the coronavirus have occurred in predominantly black counties and that 60% of Americans who have died from the disease are black. It also reports socioeconomic factors like employment, access to health insurance,and medical care as being predictive of infection and death from the coronavirus.

Marla Nelson, a professor of planning and urban studies at the University of New Orleans, such problems are part of why New Orleans has been hit so hard by the virus. “[It’s] the inequities that we had for decades before the outbreak, and the fact that we have huge levels of inequality and poverty and folks that lack access to health care.” Losses, possibly into the billions, could reverberate for months or even years into the future. “You’re seeing the financial vulnerability of transit agencies really laid bare for all of us to see,” she says.

The Ones We Need The Most We Protect The Least

And yet, many of the people society depends upon to be caregivers, restaurant workers, and food processors are dependent on public transportation to get to work. “They still have to take the bus because they don’t have another way to get to their service jobs or the hospital or to the grocery store,” Sean Kennedy, head of planning for the San Francisco MTA, tells the Post, “[They] don’t have other options as ways to get around.”

Even so, officials in Republican states are wringing their hands over the prospect of lazy, shiftless people — Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens — idling their days away at home because they can earn more money on unemployment than by returning to work.  Many are left with the choice to risk infection to get to jobs where infection rates are skyrocketing. It’s a Hobson’s choice, but the stereotype of ungrateful freeloaders in American society just will not go away.

Meanwhile, two companies that provide executive jet services to wealthy travelers have pocketed more than $55 million in economic stimulus funds from the federal government. Both are owned by fervent Trump supporters, which illustrates once again that America operates according to the Golden Rule — those that have the gold make the rules. While poor people struggle to get to work, the federal government is preparing a $750 billion lifeline for the oil and gas industry.


Public transportation has always been underfunded by governments and today will be no different. The public welfare simply does not have the economic clout of big business or other national priorities. Imagine what wonders America could have achieved if it had not squandered trillions of dollars on military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades. Imagine if people counted as much as corporate profits. Imagine if “We The People” was really the talisman for liberty and freedom it purports to be.

The coronavirus may prove to be the death knell of public transportation in America. The political will to keep funding it during the term of the pandemic — which will be measured in years rather than months — simply does not exist in America today. The very idea of public transportation smacks of socialism and the hated New Deal — archaic notions best discarded as soon as possible in order to secure the blessings of liberty to all who can afford them.

Robotaxis, underground tunnels, and air taxi services won’t be ready for years if not decades. There are no new non-polluting, congestion reducing, infection defying alternatives to public transportation available now or in the foreseeable future. As public transportation shrivels in the wake of the coronavirus, the nature of work itself may need to change significantly in ways that may be detrimental to restoring the economy.

“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls,” Simon and Garfunkel told us. America’s public transit systems may have been fatally wounded by COVID-19. There is simply no way to move masses of people and protect them from infection at the same time. The words of tomorrow’s prophets will likely be written on empty subway walls.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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