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Modern Mobility: Transit is Back and It’s Safe

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Just in time for the start of the normal busy season in the D.C. area, MetroRail, MetroBus and ART have largely resumed normal levels of service. If you need to return to the office, transit is likely there and ready for you and the newest research is finding that riding transit can be done very safely.

MetroRail Service

MetroRail has returned to near pre-pandemic levels of service and most stations that were closed for platform reconstruction have re-opened, including East Falls Church. Dunn Loring and Vienna are set to reopen next week. Masks are required and customers are encouraged to socially distance to the extent possible.

MetroBus Service

MetroBus service ramped back up on Aug. 23 to about 75% of normal weekday service. Weekend service is back to 85-90%. Masks are required, customers are encouraged to socially distance to the extent possible, and boarding is through the rear doors to lessen bus driver exposure; bus fare collection is suspended.

ART Service

Most ART routes have returned to normal service with just routes 31, 61, 62 and 74 remaining out of service. Masks are required, customers are encouraged to socially distance to the extent possible, and boarding is through the rear doors to lessen bus driver exposure; bus fare collection is suspended.

Safety

The service has returned, but is it safe? Increasingly the answer appears to be “Yes”, that fear of public transit got ahead of the evidence. While we still have a lot to learn about this virus, public transit appears to not be a significant transmission vector.

France and Japan’s contact tracing efforts have found almost zero clusters linked to their public transit systems. A similar study in Austria was unable to link any of their 355 clusters to transit. Hong Kong, a dense city of 7.5 million people whose subway system was carrying nearly 13 million people per day saw and whose transit ridership dropped significantly less than other global systems has recorded only about 4,800 cases so far, or about a quarter of the number of cases seen in Prince William County here in Virginia — a county with a population of under 500,000 which is largely car-dependent.

How can transit be safe? A number of factors: mask wearing is key, keeping your distance is important, good ventilation is a must and treating every subway car like the Amtrak quiet car appears to help a lot also.

WMATA has stated that MetroRail’s train ventilation systems perform similarly to New York City’s, which completely replace the air in the car approximately every 3 minutes.

With new guidance that talking increases the expulsion range of potentially Covid-containing droplets, NJ Transit is encouraging their riders to treat trains like a library – avoiding loud talking and restricting phone conversations. Japanese health officials led the way on this and have been asking people to avoid conversations on transit for months now.

Arlington Needs Transit

The 2019 State of the Commute report for Arlington is now out and it contains a major milestone – nearly the same percentage of Arlington residents commuted via transit in 2019 as commuted alone in a car (including being the lone passenger in a taxi or ride-hail vehicle). 41% drive-alone, 40% transit. If we all returned to the office tomorrow and everyone choose to drive/taxi/Uber instead of taking transit, it would nearly double the number of cars on the road. This would be disastrous for travel times, for our climate goals, and for air quality – an especially bad outcome when research is beginning to indicate that breathing more polluted air leads to higher Covid mortality.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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