I used to ride the Gold Line every day. That’s not a exaggeration, it was literally every day. It wasn’t just my means of getting to work, it was also my means of seeing friends, exploring the city, and spending time with my significant other. I was a non-essential worker and have been confined to Pasadena since the stay-at-home order went into effect. I long for the steady rhythm of life on that train. Riding the Gold Line wasn’t just my normal, it was what made me feel like a part of the city.
Growing up, I’ve lived in a few towns bisected by train tracks. And a favorite pastime of mine was taking walks, watching the freight trains go by, and imagining the amazing places those trains were going to. I would picture what lay at the other end of those rails. This is a habit that has returned under the stay-at-home order. My evening walks take me over the tracks of the Gold Line and I watch the trains whisk away to Downtown Los Angeles and East LA without me. The pandemic has robbed me of my ties to the city, and I long to return.
Even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted, coronavirus and the threat of COVID-19 will remain with us. When the order went into effect, transit ridership plunged as essential workers were the only people still using transit. In the coming months, we’re going to see some nonessential trips return to transit, but likely not very many. People have become afraid to venture outside and terrified of anything that might entail contact with other people. But we’re not going to remain inside forever. Whether we are forced out by economic necessity or drawn out by our desire to see friendly faces once more, we can only live in fear of other people for so long.
Which brings me to the big question: Is it safe to use transit?
The answer to this question is complicated, with a lot of different factors that I’m about to get into in more detail, but the short version I’m going with is: yes, as long as you take precautions.
There’s a long article published on CityLab that tackles this topic in extensive detail, but it all basically boils down to wear a mask and keep a safe distance. They spend a lot of time discussing whether ventilation matters (answer: kinda), and they say it’s a good idea to avoid touching surfaces as much as possible, but the real point they want to drive home is (say it with me now) wear a mask and keep a safe distance.
The good news is that it doesn’t seem like riding transit is particularly dangerous. There are many dense cities with heavily used mass transit systems that haven’t seen massive outbreaks: Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, etc. Even in New York City, a study found that the rates of infection were actually higher in the further-flung areas of the city instead of the areas with lots of subway lines. No one has a clear answer for why this is, although the linked article posits that automobiles are greater conveyors of the disease than subways. And as counter-intuitive as that may sound, this actually makes sense to me. When you take transit, you know that you’re going to be around other people, so you’re more likely to take measures to protect yourself (especially when your transit agency is forcing you to do so, like making riders wear a mask). It seems more dangerous, therefore you’re more careful. But if you’re driving, you’re more likely to presume that you’re safe, and thus more likely to take a cavalier attitude.
This isn’t to say that transit is inherently safer than driving, just that it doesn’t seem to be inherently more dangerous (at least when it comes to the pandemic, because transit is definitely safer when you’re talking about deaths and injuries from car accidents). The risk of using transit depends more on the context of your specific area. The scale and nature of COVID-19 outbreaks have less to do with modes of transportation and much more to do with whether rigorous testing and contact tracing has been done. This being America, we obviously suck at such preventive measures. But the good news is that transit agencies around Los Angeles have been taking the necessary preventive measures, which basically involve rigorous cleaning, keeping the bus driver separated from the riders, and telling everyone to wear masks.
I’ve used transit multiple times since the stay-at-home orders went into effect, and what I’ve observed is this: riders have been very good at observing these guidelines. Granted, my experience is limited to transit around Pasadena, but that at least includes the Metro Gold Line, Metro buses, Foothill Transit, and Pasadena Transit. On all of them, what I’ve seen is people wearing masks (especially since all of these transit agencies now require it) and doing their best to keep their distance. Riding transit is definitely a much more subdued experience now, but also a more contemplative one. More often than not, I’ve been the only person on the bus for long stretches of the ride.
Based on my experiences of using transit recently, I do have a few tips I want to offer:
- Use real-time arrival information on your phone. Metro has a updating list of current schedules, but these are constantly changing. And the thing about Metro’s schedules is that they were designed with heavy traffic in mind, which makes them pretty unreliable now. Checking the times on your phone is highly recommended. The Transit app is my personal favorite for how user-friendly it is (and now it’s Metro’s official app of choice), but NextBus and Google Maps work too.
- Buses require you to enter and exit through the back door. Unless you’re in a wheelchair, in which case you still use the front door ramp.
- You don’t have to pay! Most transit agencies around LA have stopped collecting fares to keep you away from the bus driver, with barriers set up to even keep you from getting close to the driver. Metro has this weird workaround where they still want you to have a TAP card on you, but this is obviously just a pretext to kick off anyone they don’t want.
- …Unless you’re taking a train. Since Metro isn’t technically free, you still have to TAP to get through the turnstiles at a Metro Rail station.
- Wash your hands afterwards or bring hand sanitizer. This one is pretty self-explanatory.
- And most importantly, say it again: wear a mask and keep a safe distance.
We’re going to be living with coronavirus for a long time to come. We’re a long way from a reliable vaccine being developed, and even if one was created, I suspect that it wouldn’t be widely distributed under our shoddy health care system. The 1918 flu pandemic wasn’t limited to 1918: the worst of it took place that year, but there were minor waves occurring as late as 1920. I wouldn’t be surprised if the COVID-19 pandemic takes a similar course, with the threat lingering over us for years to come.
Society is slowly firing up the engines and we’re just beginning to adjust to our new social distancing normal. In the coming months, you’re going to see a profound shift in the way people talk about the pandemic. The breathless headlines and hectic pace of the early weeks of quarantine has already faded. COVID-19 is going to become another existential threat that is always visible in the background of our lives, like climate change, mass shootings, and our homelessness crisis. Occasionally there will be a stir to action and plenty of cries to take it more urgently, but the relentless reality of it will force a grim acceptance. No one is coming to save you. All you can do is try to keep yourself and others safe and sane.