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Public transit and COVID-19: What to expect on your commute

Whether you're taking the bus, train, subway, or even using a ferry, your commute will look different. Here's what to expect.
New York Exteriors And Landmarks - 2020
Commutes will look different during the coronavirus pandemic - here's how to stay safe. Jose Perez / GC Images
/ Source: TODAY

As the world begins to re-open after COVID-19, many people are beginning to return to daily life, including going back to work, running errands and visiting friends. For millions of Americans, this means returning to public transit.

Many cities and states slowed or stopped their public transit options during the peak of the pandemic, worried that passengers forced close together would increase the spread of the virus. However, much of the service has been restored, with some social distancing measures put in place.

Here's what to expect on your commute, and tips from doctors on how to keep yourself safe.

How to stay safe on public transit

Just like everywhere else during COVID-19, the risk that you take by using public transit is extremely variable, depending on the amount of people there, the spread of the coronavirus in that area and the precautions that other passengers are taken.

To keep yourself as safe as possible, wear a mask and carry hand sanitizer so that you can clean your hands frequently.

Carry hand sanitizer with you on public transit to clean hands between touching surfaces.
Carry hand sanitizer with you on public transit to clean hands between touching surfaces. Getty Images

"Certainly, people should be wearing masks," said Dr. Josh Sharfstein, the Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.. "And people really need to stay home if they have any symptoms."

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth while commuting, and make sure to wash your hands with soap and water as soon as possible after using public transit.

Sharfstein said an important part of staying safe while commuting is trying to go during times where there are less people using public transit systems. However, that will depend on employers allowing for flexible start times.

"Hopefully, employers will have some flexibility so that people can commute on off-hours," he said. "Also, hopefully a transit agency will be able to run more trains and buses at peak hours, so there aren't as many people on an individual car."

If you do use public transit, wear a mask and distance from anyone you haven't been quarantined with.
If you do use public transit, wear a mask and distance from anyone you haven't been quarantined with. Getty Images

Dr. Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, recommends avoiding public transit if at all possible.

"I’m a big believer in public transit for lower carbon footprint and all sorts of other stuff, but if you can avoid public transportation, do that, at least for the next few months," he said. "Those who cannot do that, because there is a significant number of the population who cannot do that, should wash their hands, wear masks, try to avoid situations where people are packed into small cars, avoid peak times and keep your distance."


As recommended, make sure to wear a mask and practice appropriate social distancing as much as possible while riding trains. If you can, try to skip rows of seats between yourselves and other passengers, and avoid sitting next to someone who you haven't been quarantining with.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend using contactless ticket options wherever possible. If you must purchase a ticket on the train or at the station, try to use a credit or debit card, or exact change to limit the amount of contact between a train operator and passenger.


Subway systems are being cleaned more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, but passengers still need to take the appropriate measures to keep themselves safe. It's important to wear a mask and social distance, as well as try to touch as few surfaces as possible.

Be cautious while in the station as well. Some cities have begun marking spots on platforms for social distancing, while others are using arrows to direct foot traffic. Try to follow these instructions as much as possible.

To avoid being caught in large crowds or overcrowded cars, try to commute at off-peak hours wherever possible.


Just like on trains and subways, bus commutes can be made safer with masks, social distancing, and trying to commute during off-peak times.

Guidelines from the CDC for bus operators recommend that passengers only enter through the rear set of doors, where there will be less interaction with the driver. It's also advised that passengers use touchless payment wherever possible, or a pre-paid card or credit card. If you must use cash, try to give exact change to limit the amount of contact between yourself and the driver.

Another note from the CDC recommends that ventilation be increased wherever possible, so if the weather allows for it, try asking your bus operator if windows can be opened to increase airflow.


Ferries aren't the most common method of commuting, but in cities like New York City and Seattle, they can be a fast and efficient way to get around. While the open air of the deck might seem appealing — studies show that the virus is less likely to spread outdoors — it's important to be careful, since several ferries have had minor outbreaks of the virus.

In Alaska, seven crew members on a state ferry tested positive, out of a group of 35 crew members and six passengers. According to the Anchorage Daily News, it's believed an infected woman was among the passengers.

To keep yourself safe on the ferry, take the same steps you would on any other form of transit — wear a mask and keep some distance between yourself and other passengers.

Some ferries, like New York City's Staten Island ferry (which runs between Staten Island and Manhattan) are using tape to block off seats to create extra distance.

Just like with buses, trains, and subways, it's also recommended that you try to travel at off hours to avoid overcrowding.