The new findings of the covid-19 in public transport

The new findings of the covid-19 in public transport

18 Jun 2020
Measures against Epidemics
Posted:

I did a first post outlining the challenges of the covid-19 for transportation, a second post giving more detail on the (financial) difficulty of having public transportation without overcrowding, and now I write another - after reviewing more information - where I describe how public transport conditions could be improved (in terms of financial sustainability) while continuing to provide a service that reduces the risk of contagion in covid-19.

I did a first post outlining the challenges of the covid-19 for transportation, a second post giving more detail on the (financial) difficulty of having public transportation without overcrowding, and now I write another - after reviewing more information - where I describe how public transport conditions could be improved (in terms of financial sustainability) while continuing to provide a service that reduces the risk of contagion in covid-19.

Some very interesting ideas about this have been described by Alejandro Tirachini (who is also about to publish an academic article about it) and several articles have been shared in a collaborative thread by TUMI, and after writing this I found a column by Darío Hidalgo that presents some of these points. I hope I can contribute other ideas to the debate.


Research around the covid-19

A lot has been written about covid-19 to try to understand it. There are so many thousands of articles that there is even a specialized searcher in applying "machine learning" to large data sets dedicated to pandemic data and articles. Perhaps it is the phenomenon that has been studied the most in a short time and in a more collaborative way in the history of the universe, but we are still not sure what is good and what is not, or how contagion can be effectively reduced without drastic consequences in our daily life.


As if this was not enough, it has been difficult to find an agreement between economic and epidemiological discussion to formulate a “post-covid openness” public policy. Jokes happened fast enough (“economists and epidemiologists will never agree” etc.), but it is very difficult to achieve a midpoint between what satisfies epidemiology – safe enough and free of contagion – with what the economy would want in terms of the broader impacts of the different insulation measures. To finish sinking the dagger of mistrust, some recent articles have been strongly criticized for not following the scientific method and reaching conclusions that seem to be the result of a prophecy of self-fulfillment.


The discussion on public transport

As I already explained, one of the most difficult issues where there is still no agreement - or at least not an agreement between different disciplines - is public transport. It is, without a doubt, an essential service and to which the entire population must have access. But at the same time there seems to be a very big risk because, by definition, it is a service where people must travel less than 2 meters away from each other so that it can work in the long term.


In Colombia, the magic number of "maximum 35 percent occupation of public transport" has been the rule written in decrees and said by rulers and technicians without ceasing. However, no one knows where it came from or how it was calculated, and those of us who have tried to understand how that number is calculated have not found an exact reason (do the math and you will see that if a bus generally goes with occupancy of 4 people per square meter, there is no way of achieving a distance of 2 meters with an occupation of 35 percent. The number that I came up with (with the help of a mathematician) is 0.1 persons per square meter to be able to comply, that would actually imply an occupancy of less than 10 percent).


As I explained in a fantastic interdisciplinary WhatsApp group of covid-19 where mainly epidemiologists participate, the concern for the transport sector is that typically the biggest public health problems in the sector have been the risks of road insecurity, contamination and respiratory problems.

These concerns may not be as great as the risk posed by the coronavirus, but what is happening (in Asia, for example) is that people are buying more cars and motorcycles or using them more as a result of reduced public transportation use and its "demonization" - or the government is subsidizing them for this. We have all "cheered" for the modal change to a bicycle but, in total sincerity, this is lower than one would want (although bicycles are being sold more than ever). So, it is crucial to have a good understanding of the relative risks of restricting the occupation of public transport and comparing them with those other known public health risks in transport.


There is good news

I already finished mentioning the bad news. What has become more recently known, with which several people (including both economists and epidemiologists) have begun to agree, is that the activities of highest risk of contagion are those where people are singing, screaming, laughing or talking hard (in addition to where the three Cs - Confined, crowded, close - are breached). For this reason, discotheques, churches and concert venues are points where greater contagion has been clearly identified. Being cynical, it makes me think that the pandemic is going to create a more blasé, or more depressive and anecdotic society. It seems that we are going to begin a stage of our civilization where - for a hundred years at least - the lack of expressions of affection and joy are going to be seen as a positive feature in social interaction.


Although it is very sad to know that the laughs seem to perpetuate the Covid-19 and that the stoic silence seems to reduce the risk of getting infected, that is good news for public transport since it is precisely an urban service where, almost by definition, nobody talks or laughs or sings or cries (except, of course, when someone sings or laughs on purpose). It is, by definition, a non-place.


This seems to increase the chances of rescuing public transport and decidedly argue that it is not as risky a place as previously thought and that the magic number of 35 percent occupancy can be changed and we can speak of a higher occupancy and, consequently , promote a more balanced use of transportation means that reduces the other risks generated by the sector in public health and others.

Some sources with information


A list of recent reports or findings that can help the debate (not necessarily academic or peer-reviewed articles):


- Article of the Journal of Transport and Health where it is stated that it cannot be proven that the suspension of mass urban transport systems is effective in reducing the risk of contagion, as exposure in homes is most likely to present a greater risk.


- Publication in France describing how out of 150 coronavirus "clusters" (with at least 3 sick people) found outside homes and institutions, none occurred on trains, subways, or planes.


- In Japan, no clusters were found to take place on trains (commonly known to be quite busy).


- In Austria, of 297 local clusters, none related to public transport.


- In Singapore, the ministerial co-chair for the covid-19 working group said "we have evidence that the risk of contagion of the virus in congregations and social interactions is much higher than in public transport when people wear masks, not he talks and they travel in disinfected vehicles for a short time".

- In New York, Sam Schwartz says that "in May, a survey of 1,300 patients admitted to city hospitals for the virus showed that only 4 percent had used public transportation".


All the previous examples are places where the use of masks has been respected and, in almost all, where there have been explicit policies of silence within public transport.


Without being an epidemiologist or trying to make this a peer-reviewed academic paper or used as a sole guide to public policy, it does seem important to me to be able to balance the debate and deliver this information.


And anyway, I think we must remember (or clarify) two things:
- Walking and cycling is definitely an excellent method to reduce the risk of covid-19 infection. These are the two ways of transporting in which all the conditions indicated by the recommendations are met.
- None of this is going to be solved with just data. Germany has already demonstrated that the necessary equipment is of many professions and what is needed is dialogue, debate and agreements. If not, we end up in the ideology of the covid-19 where research is not sought but dogma.

(This article was first published in La Silla Vacía)

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