Ethical Risk: Transit Safety in COVID Times

I have had the opportunity and privilege this week to organize and participate in a very informative panel discussion on ethical issues involving transit. The focus of the session, featuring industry experts Sanathan Kassiedass and Andrew Miller, was on the relative safety of transit as part of the larger question about the future survival of transit, given significant COVID-influenced changes and challenges in housing, commuting and mobility choice. This blog summarizes some ethical dimensions from both the panel discussion as well as the recent international, thought leader literature.

The Issue

Urban mass transit has seen great reduction in traffic volumes as passengers seek to avoid infection risk. There is infectious disease rate research data and empirical evidence from Singapore, Korea and other jurisdictions that transit travel need not be a high-risk mobility choice. In the face of public fear about returning to transit, the panelists discussed what responsible messages might municipal politicians, transit authority mangers and sustainability leaders be putting into the public arena for debate?

The panelists dealt with five Questions:

  1. How much ridership loss and rebound did you see in COVID wave one?
  2. What grounds are there to say that mass transit inherently is safe or unsafe?
  3. Do suburban and exurban housing choice trends bode ill for existing and future mobility, commuting and transit use?
  4. Does the phenomenon of increase from work from home pose an existential threat to transit ridership volumes?
  5. Can politicians or thought leaders change the public’s seemingly deep-seated fear about transit not only during but also after the pandemic?

Ethical Analysis

There are certain ethical issues that show up regularly in Knowledgebase posts as well as discussion of COVID planning adaptations and mitigation strategies. They include:

1. Need for accurate infection transmission, testing and tracking data on transmission rates on mass transit.

2. Danger pay for essential staff such as conductors, drivers, and maintenance staff.

3. Need for taxpayer investment at a time that many other sectors are clamoring for total available recovery aid.

Question One

Source: Moovit

Ridership loss on major Canadian urban transit systems was on the order of 80-85% in COVID Wave One. The rebound varied by operating authority but overall numbers are down for various reasons:

  • (a) many workplaces are shut down by government edict;
  • (b) people are choosing to stay at home;
  • (c) rules on distancing mean that buses and trains offer many fewer seats;
  • (d) sharp reductions in school, university and recreation trips are taken; and
  • (e) choice riders (as distinct from captive riders) are choosing other modes of mobility.

Ridership is being influenced by government messages to the public to keep social distance and stay at home. Capacity is reduced as part of enforcing distance between seats. Answers to the question why transit has been much less affected by low ridership in other jurisdictions like Japan and South Korea include:

  • (a) riders routinely already wore masks in pubic;
  • (b) there is much less speaking on vehicles; and
  • (c) routing isn’t as focused  on serving the central business district.

There are a great variety of actions that have been taken by operators, the public and the community to enhance ridership during waves one and two COVID:

Pandemic proof the fleet (masks, test, trace, spacing) Use multi-modal, real-time, mobility apps Promote non-traditional vehicles: bikes, scooters
Maintain a state-of-the-art disinfectant regimen Take advantage of micro-transit planning options: shuttles, vans Extend trip timing management collaboration with business, schools, government offices
Offer contactless payment systems Stagger personal out-of-home travel time—avoid rush hours Extend variable time of use pricing
Enhance scheduling/ demand management Wear masks and practice safe distancing Boost pedestrian and cycling use downtown
Offer recognition and reward programs Consider shared, flexible, and  safe travel modal choices Promote high efficiency vehicles
Adjust routes as needed Choice (non-captive) riders choose more at-home activities Allocate more long-term recovery funding
Remove on-board litter (cleanliness seriously influences ridership choice) Relocate home-work office locations where possible Caution riders to wear mask, wash hands and social distance
Follow quarantine protocols for ill drivers and operator staff Reduce overall face-to-face business travel Facilitate cashless and contactless cross-boundary travel

Question Two

Getting around quickly now feels much less important than getting around safely. With a respiratory disease like COVID-19, the more people breathing, coughing and talking into the same air as you in a confined space, the more chance there is of being infected by the virus. The more ventilation there is in your chosen form of transport, including buses, the better. Scientifically-speaking, the risk of viral transmission varies depending on setting, occupation times, venting, and conversation levels.

There are studies which conclude that mass transit may inherently be as safe as other mobility choices. One reality is that is that mask-wearing has been shown to be effective at reducing person-to-person transmission, whatever the mode of travel choice. Another is that many essential workers are transit-dependent, lower economic status, and need transit to earn a living. A third is that the on-board health risk is greater for drivers (who have long trip shifts) than for passengers. Another is that noisy environments, where people must lean in and shout to be heard, are higher risk than quieter spaces. Time and noise are thought to be two of the reasons why nightclubs, bars or meat-packing plants have experienced high levels of contagion.

Early research from China documents that there is a “high transmission risk” for COVID-19 among transit passengers, with those sitting directly beside an infected person facing the most risk of all. The “attack rate” for passengers sitting in the same row was 1.5 per cent, or more than 10 times the rate for those sitting in rows further ahead or behind an infected patient. For those sitting in the seats next to the patient, the attack rate was 3.5 per cent. Trip duration and choosing a seat vacated by a patient correlate with greater risk; the choice of an aisle, middle or window seat did not.

More recent research conducted six months later in the U.S. funded by APTA, the industry association, yield different results.  No direct correlation was found between use of urban public transit and transmission of COVID-19. An analysis of public transit ridership in multiple cities showed no correlation with the rise or fall of local COVID-19 cases. Several possible explanations were recorded for the lack of correlation between the increase in public transit ridership and increasing COVID-19 cases. What you do at the end of a trip may affect the probability of contracting the virus far more than the mode of travel.

Contact-tracing in Japan, France and Austria found no links between virus outbreaks and public transport networks. Studies in the U.K. conclude that the more windows the better. A deep subway is more difficult to ventilate than a train or bus at the surface. People who used the London underground regularly were more likely to suffer flu-like symptoms than those that didn’t. Generally, public transport ventilation systems are less effective than those on aeroplanes.

Question Three

Photo by Jacek Dylag

Do suburban and exurban housing choice trends bode ill for existing and future mobility, commuting and transit use? One residential relocation behaviour favouring transit is the relocation of people from larger cities to smaller cities: this beefs up density and transit ridership in smaller and medium-size communities. A contrary behaviour is the move to suburban and exurban, low density area, homes; this is a formidable challenge for local cross jurisdiction and local community transit usage.

Cars are obviously personally safer, provided you stick to travelling with those in your own household. But if everyone drives, this will lead to a “tragedy of the commons” effect of more traffic, and greater environmental cost, so it’s difficult to recommend them as a socially responsible choice. Cars are very space inefficient in using the urban infrastructure. If we all move in a car, nobody moves. If you can cycle, walk or ride a scooter outside to get to work, that’s your best option according to researchers as there is more space to keep your distance from others.

Question Four

The phenomenon of more widespread and long-lasting working from home poses an existential threat to transit ridership volumes. Concern is being raised by some experts about far fewer work trips creating a ridership “death spiral”, one that needs government to step up to avoid catastrophic decline.

There is meaningful evidence that choice of transit by choice riders is influenced heavily by cleanliness of transit vehicles but it is hard to take government remediation money and justify priority cleanliness expenditure activities, rather than other management response choices. Driving by car alone or shopping digitally both hold less fear of contagion risk.

Question Five

Politicians face an insuperable problem in addressing the public’s seemingly deep fear about transit not only during but also after the pandemic. They want to promote business and public safety at the same time. “Pandemic-proofing” any fleet is inherently problematical: specifically, being responsible health-wise means more distancing between passengers and thus less revenue-generating ridership per bus or train.

Certain transit advocates say there is scant evidence tying major coronavirus outbreaks to buses and trains. On the contrary, they say, transit can play a crucial role in the pandemic era by reducing air pollution that makes people more susceptible to COVID-19.

Epidemiologists seemingly lack information about whether riding transit in Canada has been riskier than other activities amid the pandemic, such as going to the gym or eating at a restaurant with outdoor seating. Indoor spaces where people have no reason to take off their masks–or talk, shout, cheer, grunt, breathe heavily, or sing–are seemingly less transmission risky. Public transit may be one of these places. Epidemiologists however can’t point to research on contact tracing in Canadian or U.S. transit systems comparable to that found in other countries.


There will be long-term health and environmental consequences if people in large numbers avoid transit longer term and/or switch from public transit to private cars. Recent analyses, and a growing number of non-Canadian experts, are now suggesting that public transit may have had a comparatively low role in the spread of the disease. Explaining those findings is an important challenge for transit leaders, promoters and operating authorities.

Need More Answers?

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Further EthicScan Resources

EthicScan Blog – Radically Remaking the Future of the Transit Industry Post-COVID: ***

EthicScan Blog – COVID Adaptation Scenarios Transit Industry:   ***

*** Found in the Knowledgebase

Further Resources

CTV News – Can I catch COVID-19 on a train? New study explains which seats are riskiest:

American Public Transportation Association – Public Transit a Safe Way to Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic:

BBC – Covid-19: How to travel safely on the bus, train and subway:

American Public Transportation Association: Public Transit and COVID-19 Pandemic::

Scientific American – There Is Little Evidence That Mass Transit Poses a Risk of Coronavirus Outbreaks:

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – Protect Yourself When Using Transportation:

Ontario Ministry of Transportation – Guidance for Public Transit AgenciesandPassengersin Response to COVID-19:

Canadian Urban Transit Association – COVID-19 Transit Resources: Guidance for the Public Transit Industry:

D Magazine – How Much Can Public Transit Be Blamed for COVID-19 Outbreaks?:

David Nitkin
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