With record-low ridership, transit leaders focus on way forward for enterprise and COVID-19

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According to official information, the use of buses and public transport is unrelated to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Dominique Castanheira & Isaac Yu 11:52 p.m., March 2, 2021

Employee reporter

David Zheng, chief photographer

Despite popular belief, local transport is not a primary source of coronavirus transmission.

That was the message on a Tuesday panel sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Transportation in partnership with New Haven Biz Magazine. The panel, which included a virologist and a CT-DOT officer, came in as many transportation systems in the New Haven area continue to suffer from record levels of drivers. Panelists were optimistic about the future of mass transportation as vaccination rates rise and Connecticut ends the pandemic.

“We went to many cities in the United States and saw the same thing,” said Sam Schwartz, transportation consultant and panelist in the New York area, told the webinar attendees. “No clusters [of COVID-19 cases] could be found in transit – there appeared to be no correlation between transit use and the virus outbreak. ”

Early coverage of the pandemic warned of a possible link between the use of transit systems in urban areas like New York City and an increase in coronavirus cases. As a result, many drivers gave up local transport altogether. Amtrak and Metro North lines that run through New Haven saw total passengers decrease by around 80 percent over the course of a year – largely due to the transition from commuting to remote work, according to panelists. However, according to Schwartz, recent data from a group of national transit agencies suggest that there is no link between public transport use and the incidence of COVID-19 cases.

A similar analysis by the New York Times last August found that increases in public transport passengers in cities around the world did not correlate with increases in COVID-19 cases.

Another panelist, Rich Andreski, the CT-DOT’s public transportation office manager, said officials should encourage residents to return to local transportation while continuing to practice masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene. His statements were confirmed by panelist Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease specialist with Hartford HealthCare Medical Group.

“The perception is that public transportation has the perfect ingredients for super-spreader events,” said Wu. “The reality is that science out there supports us in driving safely [public transit]as long as we adhere to certain health and safety rules. ”

Schwartz pointed out that areas with the highest per capita cases in the country like El Paso, Texas and Yuma, Arizona do not have dense public transportation systems. Improved airflow, short travel times and the lack of verbal communication on board subways and buses are possible explanations for the low risk that mass transportation poses, Schwartz said.

New variants of COVID-19 shouldn’t change how the industry approaches its next steps, according to Wu. All three panellists said officials should encourage residents to return to local transport in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines.

While the rail lines operated by the CT-DOT were making record lows, bus systems across the state recovered relatively quickly. The last two months of data showed that the number of drivers has decreased by 35 to 39 percent compared to that time in the past year.

With that in mind, Andreski said his department has focused on maintaining a relatively high level of bus service even as cities across the country have cut bus routes and service times. According to Andreski, this is important because the nationwide bus system tends to serve groups who “have no other choice”, such as B. important workers, colored people and people with low incomes. CT Transit buses, he added, also serve many Amazon fulfillment centers in the state, which makes them “incredibly important” to running e-commerce services.

“Outage is not an option for public transport,” said Andreski. “For justice, the environment and economic development, we must find a way to maintain our public transport system.”

Andreski also noted that the CT-DOT has been working closely with Yale to study how airflow on board transit vehicles affects the spread of aerosol droplets that carry the virus. His department is considering upgrades to on-board ventilation systems and plans to work with sports teams and universities in Connecticut to use mascots in an information campaign about wearing masks in public transport.

Steve Fontana, the assistant director of economic development for the city of New Haven, said in an interview with the News that maintaining the city’s public transportation system is an essential part of maintaining the city’s viability amid the pandemic.

“You can walk to things, you can get to things by bus, you can take public transport,” said Fontana. “We are well positioned as a business city from the point of view of quality of life.”

New Haven, he said, is best when it’s accessible through many modes – like biking, driving, and using public transit – and he expects that list to only grow. He wants to work on upgrading the train stations, expanding the runway at Tweed-New Haven Airport and possibly building a ferry terminal.

Tuesday’s event was moderated by Dennis House, the main political anchor at WTNH.

Dominique Castanheira | dominique.castanheira@yale.edu

Isaac Yu | isaac.yu@yale.edu

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