The MTA Reduces Service, Leading to Some Crowded Cars

A man wears a mask while waiting for the 6 train at the 110th Street Subway station in New York, during the coronavirus outbreak Thursday, March 26/Tyler Sizemore, Hearst Connecticut Media, via AP

After publication, the MTA press office reached out to provide additional information. On April 1, Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, gave an interview with NY1’s Lewis Dodley addressing crowding on the trains. She reiterated the work being done by the train crews and said they were running as many trains as possible with reduced manpower. “I could not be more clear if you are not an essential worker or if you are not running an essential errand, please stay home there is no reason for you to be out,” she said. The full transcript can be found here.

An additional press release indicated a continued effort to distribute masks and gloves to workers. Since the beginning of March, 240,000 masks and over 3 million gloves have been issued, and more are on the way.

With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, the Metropolitan Transit Authority—including the New York City subway and buses, Staten Island Railway, Metro-North Railroad, and Long Island Rail Road—has announced a shift to an “Essential Service” schedule, a reduction of midday service with the promise to maintain full rush hour travel.

“The MTA is committed to getting the heroes who keep this city moving where they need to go,” Patrick Foye, the MTA’s Chairman and CEO, said in a statement on March 24. The restrictions to the city’s transportation network are similar to a weekend schedule. On the subway, the B, W, Z, and C lines are not operating and some express services are running locally. City buses implemented rear boarding to keep passengers and drivers further apart. Service continues, but the MTA has adopted a slogan of “Stay Home. Stop the Spread.” Foye also expressed praise for his employees. “We’re here for the critical workers and first responders, and I also want to thank our transit workers who continue to show up and keep New York moving.”

But fewer trains means an increased chance of exposure for those who rely on them. The reduced schedule presents a number of risks. As with all sectors, the transit system has been hit with the coronavirus. On Tuesday, WABC reported that the MTA had 582 confirmed cases (including Chairman Foye) and an additional 3,334 quarantining at home, out of a workforce of about 74,000. This staffing shortage has placed more strain on the already less-frequent service. And with fewer trains, people are more likely to gather in the stations to wait.

Once on the trains, the air filtration may be better than outside the cars, but with fewer trains it is unlikely there will be enough room to ensure proper social distance.

“The whole idea of reducing the number of cars naturally will mean more people on the platform, more people per care, more chance of transmission,” said Dr. Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor of environmental health at NYU School of Global Public Health.

To address this problem, the MTA announced it would ramp up cleaning, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces in stations twice daily and disinfecting each bus and train car every 72 hours.

To Caravanos, however, this process still leaves a long time for potential exposure. “We’re telling people to always have some hand sanitizer in your hand,” he said. “If possible, don’t grab the pole or use a sleeve or something. You have to assume that it is contaminated.” Adding to the difficulties, scientists are still unsure of how many people may be asymptomatic, unknowingly spreading the virus. Recent estimates suggest one in four.

There is air filtration within the subway cars. “The inside of subway cars tends to be cleaner than the outside,” Caravanos said. “Subway car air tends to get filtered. It’s not really a HEPA filter [which filters 99.97% of fine airborne particulates], so it’s not hospital-room air quality coming out of the vents of a subway car. But it still offers some filtration.”

Subway riders wear protective masks and gloves on a sparsely populated car during morning hours. Thursday, March 19/ AP Photo by John Minchillo

Wearing a mask or something to cover your face when on the train or bus—”Anything is better than nothing,” said Caravanos—will not ensure complete safety, but it will help to limit exposure. The best way to stem the spread of the virus, however, is following state and MTA guidelines. Public transportation should only be taken by those who need to use it: essential workers, people going to and from the grocery store, and people on the way to the doctor. If you don’t need to travel, stay at home.

Not everyone can, however. Sam Hipschman, a programs director at a senior center in downtown Manhattan, is an essential worker under New York’s new stay-at-home guidelines. Before the outbreak, he would take the subway from his apartment in Brooklyn to work. But following a two-week quarantine due to exposure to a confirmed case, he no longer feels comfortable doing so. “You don’t know how many people are going to be on the train and if it will be possible to effectively social distance on the train,” he said.

Instead, in the morning Hipschman said he orders a car through a ride-sharing service. In the afternoon, after serving the packaged lunches the senior center provides daily, he walks across the bridge into Brooklyn before ordering another ride to take him the rest of the way home. He added that new work-from-home practices mean that he is not traveling to work as often as before, allowing him to justify the higher cost of travel.

But to do a big part of his job, he has to be at the senior center. “We’re trying to keep spirits up,” he said, describing how he and some coworkers play music and dance as they hand out lunch to seniors. “Just like I am nervous about the commute, I know other people are nervous or afraid. I can imagine that there are a lot of people in the city right now who are essential employees who never imagined that that is something that would be asked of them in their job.”

But until the senior center makes the full shift to a home delivery system and he can work from home, he will continue commuting to work. “I care deeply about the people we serve and I am happy to be doing whatever I can,” he said.