As the coronavirus outbreak accelerated, the U.S. State Department on January 30th issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory warning (the highest) instructing Americans to not travel to China. Noteworthy as that is, the China travel ban will affect the lives of very few Americans. The almost certain impact on public transportation in this country, on the other hand, will be a very different story.
Anytime a virus outbreak spreads rapidly, public transportation systems face their own form of ailment, as we learned in the 2002-2003 epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the infection fears of which triggered a 50 percent drop in daily public transit ridership in Taipei.
Compared to SARS, coronavirus is less severe, meaning fatality rates from infection are likely to be lower. At the same time, coronavirus is more contagious, meaning it has the potential to sicken a far greater number of people — even if not to a dire extent — and to do so very quickly. New coronavirus cases in China topped 5,000 in only a month; it took 6 months in 2003 for the number of SARS cases to reach that level. By the end of February, confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide totaled more than 80,000.
With the virus spreading that fast, it’s understandable that fear could spread just as quickly, because in addition to transmission through sneezes and coughs, a virus can also be transmitted via contaminated surfaces. Such surfaces are abundant on the seats and handrails of mass transit buses and subway cars, as well as supporting infrastructure like stair and escalator handrails. It’s only natural to expect that lots of people will avoid that travel option through an abundance of caution, opting instead (if they can) to use their own vehicle for commuting and errands.
Public transportation is central to American life, and ridership is growing faster than our population, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Americans took 9.9 billion public transit trips in 2018. If infection fears erode those numbers in the U.S. the way they did in China 17 years ago, that would blow a huge financial hole in transit agency budgets throughout the country.
And if American workers needed further reason to avoid the bus or train, they now have a nudge from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which is encouraging us to pursue telework options and work from home if possible, potentially further cutting into mass transit ridership. Still, there will always be the people for whom public transportation is the only option. Those riders will continue to face infection possibilities, as will transit agency employees, who may face an even greater risk than passengers. Heightened exposure for bus operators, for instance, could quickly result in a shortage of drivers — no less critical than a scarcity of fuel.
Fretting over falling passenger counts might seem trivial in the face of a public health crisis, but those dwindling numbers could carry a hefty price, which would only be apparent long after the worst of the epidemic (or pandemic) is behind us.
Even if public transit systems aren’t shut down entirely, as they have been in some countries, any significant drop in ridership will carry a corresponding drop in fare collection that could last weeks or even months. The resulting revenue gap can only be filled in two ways: Either increase tax subsidies or boost fares (or do both) to keep the systems running. The economic ripple effect could impact all of us — even if we rarely or never use public transportation.
There’s a lot we don’t yet know about this latest public health crisis, but we do know this much: Coronavirus is likely to cause headaches for a great many of us, even if we’re never directly infected. Transportation networks, both here and abroad, are being restricted because it’s those networks that enabled the spread of the virus in the first place.
Ironic, isn’t it? The likelihood of a coronavirus pandemic has been enabled by our enhanced ability to move freely about the planet, and that freedom is about to be tested, perhaps severely.
Eva Shipp is an epidemiologist and a research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.