How safe is it to ride the subway? New studies suggest it may not be as dangerous as you think

Natalie Colarossi

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The New York City subway system has been eerily quiet since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, often because New Yorkers feel that the enclosed space could be a high-risk area for the virus to spread.

But new studies from Europe and Asia show that public transportation has not yet proven to be a serious cause of transmission, the New York Times reported

In major cities where public transportation has rebounded, including Paris and Tokyo, contact-tracing studies have concluded that an increase in ridership has not caused superspreader events or been a significant source of new virus cases. 

The findings suggest that subways, buses, and railway systems may not be as dangerous as commuters think – as long as riders wear masks and practice social distancing. 

This information could prove crucial to increasing ridership in New York City, where the Metropolitan Transit Authority has taken a severe financial hit. 

Reporting for the Bushwick Daily, Isaac Scher found that subway commuting has plummeted over the last four months, with commutes down nearly 80% in July. The MTA has lost so much money that without quick government action, it may be forced to reduce services. 

“The MTA is losing about $200 million a week in revenues from losses and fares toll subsidies and also increased COVID-related expenses,” Chairman Pat Foye said, predicting that the agency needs $3.9 billion in federal aid this year alone. 

Toph Allen, an epidemiologist who co-wrote a report on coronavirus transmission and public transportation, told the Times that the new studies provide an “optimistic” outlook, but public health officials warn that this information should be taken with caution. 

So far, New York officials have been unable to determine whether public transportation in the city contributed to the devastating surge of coronavirus cases throughout March and April. 

Furthermore, the pandemic has taken a toll on transit workers, infecting over 4,000 and killing 131 to date, the Times reported. 

Dr. Scott Weisenberg, an Infectious Disease specialist at NYU Langone told Gothamist that the risk of infection on subways can depend on the length of the commute and whether or not people are wearing masks. 

“The people around you wearing a mask is what reduces your risk on a subway. So if you have a bunch of people who are not wearing masks and they’re within close contact with you, within six feet, and you’re around them for a prolonged period of time, not just 30 seconds, that’s putting you at risk,” he said. 

To help alleviate this concern, the MTA launched a “Mask Force” operation in July, which consisted of hundreds of volunteers distributing face coverings directly to subway commuters. 

Though the risk of contracting the coronavirus depends on numerous factors, experts ultimately predict that using public transportation is riskier than walking outdoors, but safer than indoor restaurant dining. 

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