Is it safe to take public transit? Risks to consider and how to prepare

If you are planning to take a bus, train, subway or hired car, do what you can to keep yourself and others safe and healthy.
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Commuters wearing protective masks exit from a subway car at the 42nd street station in New York City on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. After experiencing the nation's biggest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, the city began reopening on June 8. Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesGabby Jones / Bloomberg via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Public transit systems around the world have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Some, like the New York City subway system, have changed their hours of operation to allow for extra sanitization, other systems have reduced the number of passengers allowed in cars — and many have required masks be worn.

Car services like taxi cabs, Ubers and Lyfts have also changed, requiring riders and drivers both to wear masks and distance from each other as best as possible.

However, as the country begins to reopen and people begin to return to offices and other workplaces, more people are using public transit than they have in previous months. Is it safe to ride public transit during the pandemic? TODAY spoke with two health experts about just how you can use the transportation systems while still keeping yourself and your loved ones safe and healthy.

What should you bring?

A mask is a the most important thing to take on the trip. Wearing masks is as critical on public transportation as it is in other public spaces.

"You have to wear a mask," said Shan Soe-Lin, Ph.D., a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and a trained immunologist. "It's the best thing you can do."

"The number one, two and three most important things are to wear a mask, to wear a mask and to wear a mask," Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California, told TODAY. "Of the things that we recommend — social distancing, hand washing (and) mask wearing — in a public transportation setting, the most important thing is mask wearing."

Riders should also bring supplies like hand sanitizer to clean their hands after using a ticket machine or touching parts of the vehicle. It can also help to bring sanitizing wipes so you can wipe down any high-touch surfaces before using them.

In some cases, disposable gloves can also be helpful, but Soe-Lin cautioned that they should only be worn in extreme circumstances.

"Touching your face with a dirty gloved hand and touching your face with a dirty ungloved hand is the same," she said. "You can wear gloves, take them off if you need to and then put them back on, but that's pretty extreme."

How can you best analyze the COVID-19 risks?

While there haven't been any major outbreaks tied to mass transit systems, which Liu suggests is the result of effective masking, it's still important to know your risk factors and understand what chances you may have to take before getting on the bus, train or subway.

"We’re moving to a new phase where we have to manage risk as best as we can," said Soe-Lin. "If you have to go to work and you have to take the subway, you have to do what you have to do and do it as safely as you can, but people should be minimizing trips and exposures as much as possible as well."

First, make sure that the trip you're making is truly essential — and make sure that you're getting there in the safest way possible. If it's feasible to walk or ride a bike, that may be safer than using public transit. If you do have to take a vehicle, hailing a taxi is likely safer than getting on the subway.

Once you've determined where you're going and how you'll get there, make sure that you're going at an off-peak time if possible. Try to avoid busy cars and stations. Make sure that you're also following the best precautions possible depending on what type of transportation you're using.

Trains and buses

Trains and public buses may not have windows that can be opened, but if they do, it's a good idea to open them, since the increased ventilation can help lower the risk of transmission.

"Opening windows helps with getting good circulation, which will probably reduce the risk of the number of events of transmission," Liu said. "It may not necessarily reduce the risk of transmission if somebody (with coronavirus) is sitting right next to you, but it may reduce the risk for everybody else."

Do your best to avoid sitting next to other riders, especially if they aren't wearing masks.

"If you are sitting near somebody on a train who is infected and not wearing a mask, it's not a huge risk, but it's a pretty significant risk," Liu said. "That can put you in the 3 to 5% range of being infected, which is pretty significant, especially if you're near enough to people and you do it enough times over the course of a workweek."

If you're in the station, try avoiding high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and ticket machines. Use a contactless option wherever possible — and always make sure that you're wearing a mask or other face covering.

"All of these measures to reduce contact and to go contactless will incrementally help. I don't think any one of them will win the battle, but they will all incrementally help," Liu said.

Subways

Much like with buses and trains, do what you can to increase the airflow. Soe-Lin said that there isn't much data on whether opening windows on an underground subway versus on an aboveground bus or train changes the risk at all, but any airflow can help reduce the transmission of the virus.

Again, continue to do your best to avoid people who aren't wearing masks. Be sure to wear your own mask properly for the entire journey. Try to avoid crowded cars, and if you can, build some extra time into your commute.

"Try waiting for the next train," Soe-Lin said. "More people are heading back to work, and while I don't think (transit use) is going to reach the levels that it was when everything was normal, your car won't be just 10% full anymore either."

You can also try moving between cars, if possible, but be sure to do that safely — never pass between cars while a subway is in motion.

Hired cars

Hired cars like taxis, Lyfts and Ubers may be safer than buses or subways, because fewer people are in the vehicle, but the same precautions should be taken. Roll down the windows if you safely can, be sure to wear a mask and sit as far from the driver as possible — consider sitting in the back seat instead of in the front and limit the number of people in the car.

Drivers should consider using dividers or plastic shields to separate the front and back seats of the car, which can help protect them from prolonged contact with unknown riders.

If you are a passenger in a car with that arrangement, roll down the windows in the backseat.

"I would still roll things down in the back because someone was still sitting there," Soe-Lin said, pointing out that the virus can be airborne and aerosolized particles can linger for several hours.