Issues & Insights
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Mass Transit, The Pandemic Petri Dish The Left Loves

I&I Editorial

For decades and decades, politicians who propose and promote big government have done all they could to wean Americans off the convenience and freedom of cars and pack them like sardines into subways and buses, so they may travel to and from work in communal harmony. As George Will has written, “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

Will added, “Automobiles encourage people to think they – unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted – are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.”

Another reason to take the train or the bus, of course, was that it would make the air healthier to breathe by reducing jet and auto exhaust, as well as help save the planet. But as Cato Institute senior fellow and “Romance of the Rails” author Randal O’Toole notes, “the latest report from the European Union says that air travel in Europe is growing more than twice as fast as train travel: 4.9% per year versus 2.1%” – this in spite of massive spending on subsidies that has produced debts “large enough to undermine the entire economies of some countries.” O’Toole found that, against all expectation, “To the extent that train travel is growing, it is taking passengers not from cars or planes but from buses that are more energy efficient and require far fewer subsidies than trains.”

Fortunes in taxpayer monies have been misspent trying to get people to travel in ways they wish not to, sitting or standing in close proximity to perfect strangers instead of in the private company of their own vehicle with their loved ones and friends. But coronavirus is now threatening a 75% drop in public transit revenues, and so, with government mass transportation already in decline, the American Public Transportation Association, representing the country’s transit authorities, on Tuesday asked Congress for $12.8 billion in emergency funding to cover the new costs associated with coronavirus.

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority told the state’s congressional delegation, “as more people stay home following the advice of medical experts, the MTA is now facing financial calamity.” Reason magazine’s Christian Britschgi pointed out this week that public transit agencies were “already losing riders and revenue to rideshare services and private auto travel. But the current pandemic has these systems teetering on the brink.”

Taxpayers have been forced to spend bundles building and subsidizing the operation of mass transit, yet it hasn’t coaxed people away from their Fords and Subarus; apparently nothing short of brute governmental force will. And it also hasn’t changed behavior enough to improve the environment or make the air we breathe fresher. But in addition to this arrives a train we knew was on the station’s schedule from the beginning: mass transit was designed for disaster once a pandemic hit.

Or perhaps a better metaphor is that the 800-pound infectious bug in the public transit waiting room is the obvious fact that crowded subways and buses are the worst thing in the face of a new, extremely contagious respiratory virus for which there will be no vaccine for many months. The preponderance of mass transit will likely mean many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Read mainstream publications on the subject, or official analyses of how public transit systems should handle disasters, and the awareness of the massive danger is very much there even if not explicitly acknowledged, like that within the mind of someone choosing a home built upon the San Andreas Fault.

Ignoring An Obvious Danger

“New York City, which boasts nearly 22,000 licensed hospital beds across nearly 60 hospitals, is on the front lines of pandemic preparedness, said Marisa Raphael, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response,” Smithsonian Magazine told its readers in 2017. “But any disease that found its way to New York would hit early and spread rapidly, due to social density and the extent to which residents rely on mass transit.”

“There is ample documentation that mass gatherings can amplify and spread infectious diseases,” a World Health Organization analysis on “mass gatherings in the context of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza” stated. “Such infections can be transmitted during the mass gathering, during transit to and from the event, and in participants’ home communities upon their return.” The WHO recommended, “Those who are ill should be strongly encouraged to avoid air travel or other forms of mass transit.”

A 2013 “Guide for Public Transportation Pandemic Planning and Response” prepared for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program Transportation Research Board of the National Academies stated that “although some pandemic plans for transportation systems existed, there were limited resources and plans targeted to rural and small urban transportation systems … As a result, although some agencies had all-hazards response plans available, measures for pandemics were not included.”

Last month, the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport, in its “Management of COVID-19 Guidelines For Public Transit Operators,” conceded that “Public transport systems have to be considered a high-risk environment due to: high number of people in a confined space with limited ventilation; no access control to identify potentially sick persons; a variety of common surfaces to touch (ticket machines, handrails, door knobs, etc.).” Still, it also called public transit “an essential service to be maintained as long as reasonable.” When does mass death become unreasonable, the WHO might be asked in regard to mass transit.

Plus we still – even in the midst of a global disease outbreak bringing economies around the world to their knees – hear voices on the left insisting that mass transit is no time bomb, despite the deafening ticking over so many years. Last week, Ezra Klein’s Vox “explanatory journalism” site ran an article that reads like gallows humor.

“Many people assume public transit, because of the sheer number of commuters who use it daily, is a fertile breeding ground for diseases,” Vox noted, before “explaining” that it’s “just a general assumption and there’s no clear evidence showing that, when it comes to the coronavirus, a subway car is more dangerous than a crowded supermarket or an office.”

Vox makes this assertion while admitting that “Previous research has shown that taking public transit can increase a person’s risk of catching a respiratory infection (the flu or common cold), since” buses and trains “’are generally poorly ventilated carriages of people sitting and standing in close proximity’ to one another” and that “According to a 2005 survey conducted in eight regions affected by the 2003 SARS outbreak (which is a respiratory disease), six locales — Hong Kong, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Great Britain, and the Netherlands — deemed public transportation (which includes buses, trains, and airplanes) the riskiest place to be during a pandemic, in comparison to entertainment places, shops, hospitals, and workplaces or schools.” (Emphasis added.)

Last week, the MTA’s Patrick Foye advised New Yorkers, “If you can get around without riding the subway, do it. If telecommuting is an option, do it.” CBS News medical expert Dr. David Agus advised viewers, “As far away as you can get from other passengers on mass transit, the better you’re going to do.”

As long ago as 2007, the U.S. Centers For Disease Control, in a publication entitled “Interim Pre-pandemic Planning Guidance: Community Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Mitigation in the United States,” noted the dilemma of a mass transit system facing a serious infectious emergency like coronavirus: “Modifications to mass transit policies/ridership to decrease passenger density may … reduce transmission risk, but such changes may require running additional trains and buses, which may be challenging due to transit employee absenteeism, equipment availability, and the transit authority’s financial ability to operate nearly empty train cars or buses.”

The European-funded PANDHUB (Prevention and Management of High Threat Pathogen Incidents in Transport Hubs) in 2018 conceded that “mass transportation systems offer an effective way of accelerating the spread of infectious diseases within communities.”

So it’s long been known around the world that public transit, while acting as a fiscal wrecking ball in numerous countries, and failing in both its social and environmental goals, was also a dangerous catalyst in wait for something like coronavirus. Yet some official assessments of the relationship between mass transportation systems and public health read as if their expert authors are gleefully ignorant of the possibility of pandemics.

Public Transit’s Health Benefits – Minus A Pandemic

A 2013 Canadian study envisions a wonderland in which increased government spending on public transportation brings “neighborhoods where residents own fewer cars, drive less, and rely more on walking, cycling, and public transit, providing additional health and safety benefits.” It adds that “Because most transit trips include walking and cycling links, transit improvements tend to increase physical fitness … and high-quality public transit can reduce commuter stress.” In the case of COVID-19, of course, it can also reduce commuters.

A 2014 “Guide for Public Transportation Pandemic Planning and Response” from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board admitted that “For transportation organizations with even robust emergency management programs in place, addressing the needs of a pandemic will require a shift in thinking” because “Many of the key disease containment strategies (e.g., isolation, quarantine, social distancing, closing places of assembly, and/or furloughing non essential workers) create challenges for transportation agencies whose workforce may work in close proximity to one another (e.g., cubicles) and interact directly with the public.”

One of its recommendations was the erection of “Plexiglas barriers for drivers and ticket sellers,” while others include making “worker protection the highest priority,” being “mindful of the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” and accounting for “fear, uncertainty, and mental health issues.”

Pandemics are apparently no match for government bureaucracies’ entrenched political correctness.

Just as the notorious public housing projects built for the poor in American cities as the wave of the future in the middle of the last century ended up being breeding grounds for violent crime and economic despair, the same approach of treating commuting human beings as cattle to be managed by their bureaucrat betters in authority above them is now proliferating a deadly imported pathogen that will transport death to the masses.

— Written by Thomas McArdle

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The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.


  • Some Founders, like Jefferson, were very anti-urban. Was he prescient? Big cities are mainly Democrat-controlled hell holes of crime, corruption and now disease.

  • Lame. Given the choice between driving in endless, soul crushing traffic and walking/public transit, anyone under, like, 40 would choose the latter. The ideal would be to live in a place where walking, transit, and driving were all solid options – but given the choice, to hell with driving

    • Your logic (or lack thereof) is even more lame. The “ideal” you propose in the last line clearly must sound perfectly reasonable — to you. And undoubtedly you think it does to others.

      Sadly, your ideal consists of three options that, when taken together, are mutually exclusive. And you don’t even have the rational skills to be able figure that out. Because, I assume, you are of an age where the education you received (including university) was based on your feelings as opposed to facts. That is where LaLa Land, Bernie Sanders and leftism in general came from and have risen to our culture’s surface, not like cream but like pond scum. I wouldn’t put you in charge of a dog-catching department. No offense to you. Or to dogs.

      But truly, you can’t separate fantasy from reality, based on the reasoning you showed.

      • Jack, 1/2 the people who comment online can barely spell. The other half are usually bloviating pedants. You’re absolutely correct that those things tend to be mutually exclusive. Which is why I said, given the choice, I would choose the option that involved driving in congestion as little as possible. And I do think most of the under 40 cohort feels the same way. I just wanted to keep it short/pithy.

        You should check out “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery. There is value in driving, in so much as it gives people a much greater sense of control of their own lives and agenda, but that starts to break down pretty fast when folks have no choice but to commute long distances in traffic and have no alternatives (especially bad in drive-to-qualify type situations, psychologically speaking).

        Anyway, I won’t cast any aspersions on your intellect or intelligence. That’s needlessly rude, and your writing speaks for itself anyway. But thank you for reiterating and expounding on my original point.

    • Collectivism in all its subcategories fosters a hive mentality over individualism. Among its many deleterious features is the ease of swapping pestilence.

    • Nonsense on stilts – one of the biggest perks in urban and suburban areas is free parking. Daily parking costs $40-50 where I am which is the only reason I take the commuter train.

    • None of that addresses the article’s basic point: Public transportation is the ideal environment for serious diseases like the Coronavirus to spread.

      We’ve shut down shopping malls because people are in close proximity and could easily infect each other — but in public transport people are so close together they are squished and squeezed! That is far worse than any mall food court.

      To address your own points, I think public transport is also soul-crushing, although it really depends on your specific system. At least in a car you can enjoy comfortable seats, your own music on the stereo, etc. And you have the ability to choose your route to seek out less congested areas. There is nothing pleasant in my eyes about standing or sitting in a hard seat (because cushioned seats would be promptly destroyed by patrons), being squashed to your neighbor, etc.

    • OK, you don’t like cars, but lots of other people do. That’s fine. Why don’t we just let everyone vote with their feet? In the meantime, this is a good article on mass transit’s amplification of virus-born epidemics.

  • The benefit of the coronavirus is that it brings a new focus to many, if not most, of the tenets of Democratic Party Liberalism. Mass Transit is not the only petri dish. The Democratic Party’s Open Borders goal, which even the UberLiberal EU has now closed, coupled with their enticement of Free Health Care for illegal border jumpers ensures that any issue of a deadly disease in Latin America will become an issue of a deadly disease in the USA.
    There is another petri dish which Democrats hold dear; City Planning. To wit:
    1) Dec 02, 2018 “Expanding cities horizontally to make room for all these new people would destroy more natural resources, so a growing number of people are proposing vertical cities as a solution to this dilemma” [of suburban growth].
    2) 2000 “How Cities Green the Planet. By packing people into a small area and by using high-tech foods, fuel, and building materials, cities leave most of the earth free for wilderness.” [and cemeteries].
    Liberalism is the sum total of short-sighted intentions generating unintended petri dishes.

  • The late Lewis Mumford, in “The City in History”, described subways as “metropolitan man-sewers”. Mumford dedicated his life to the study of cities, but he was not a fan of megalopolis.

  • Speaking of Petri dishes, then there are the mandates from various levels of government that we shall do away with plastic bags to save the world. Meanwhile shoppers hoard their food in reusable bags that touch shopping carts, the hands of checkout clerks, the surfaces on which food is placed before being bagged, etc.

    It’s yet to be proven that plastic bag use in the U.S.A. is harmful to anything, but it’s easy to show the potential for disease spread using reusable bags.

    • Not a fan of getting rid of plastic bags.
      The problem is with the people who use them.
      There are way too many on the side of the road and in the ocean.

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