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What Does the Future of Public Transportation Look Like?

The United States relies on public transportation. In New York, for example, almost seven million residents take public transportation to work; fifty percent of students take the bus to school. At the height of COVID-19, public transportation was put on hold until the virus was quelled. Trains and buses ran for essential workers, constantly shutting down these services for thorough cleaning. While the pandemic is not slowing down in America, offices are beginning to operate at reduced capacity, and workers in service industries are returning to their jobs. Many of these employees rely on public transportation to commute to work.


The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is one of the many public transportation services that are currently operating in cities. The MTA is in phase four of reopening: The measures put in place to safely transport 8.3 million riders per day include increasing service to reduce capacity, installing hand sanitizer stations, distributing free masks, accommodating for contactless payment, and ensuring that riders are properly spaced. Trains and buses require all passengers to wear masks before boarding, and only five percent of riders have not conceded to this regulation. These procedures are working seamlessly for the MTA, but this transit service may have to make budget cuts to afford these reforms.


The MTA has a sixteen billion dollar deficit, facing a financial convulsion. There is limited money that New York’s transportation authority can spend on masks and hand sanitizer. Trains and buses are also run more frequently, with fewer passengers. On a per-passenger basis, the MTA is making less money than it was in 2019, which was another difficult fiscal year. Massive budget cuts may include reducing service, laying off employees, and taking away expensive services, such as distributing free masks and hand sanitizer.

Besides the MTA’s current fraught situation, experts concur that public transportation is safe in most cities. In Paris, contact tracers determined that none of its coronavirus cases in early March were related to public transit. Researchers in Tokyo concluded that its crowded rail lines accounted for none of its cases in April and May. However, the early epicenter of the virus, New York City, found that four thousand transit workers tested positive for the virus, and 131 MTA workers died after contracting COVID-19. Ninety percent of these workers were under the division that operates buses and trains. Although there were extreme threats related to riding the subway in March and April, the MTA has so far been safe.


Trains are still running at twenty percent the capacity of pre-pandemic levels, so public transportation has a long way to go before the MTA’s 8.3 million daily riders can scavenge for seats on congested subways.


As many public schools are choosing to operate at a reduced capacity in the fall, school buses will still have to keep up with the millions of students who rely on safe transportation each day.


School districts are evaluating reopening plans: Many have opted with hybrid schedules, some choose to have in-person schooling, and others are still resorting to virtual classes. Full-sized school busses hold seventy-two children. Seats on these buses are thirty-nine inches wide. If a row of seats is limited to two passengers spaced as far apart as possible, children on school buses will follow the CDC’s six feet apart rule. Unfortunately, these regulations prohibit school buses from safely transporting more than thirty students.


Riders on public transportation, however, are prone to spreading the virus, no matter how much distance is kept between passengers. These plans to revamp transportation may be effective now, but they are not perfect. The virus spread quickly among MTA workers, so buses and trains can allow for the transmission of COVID-19.


Either way, it is only natural that public transit, like many other services, will adapt to secure public health. Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, commuters have limited options.


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