In a moment when public health, mobility, and economic vitality are acutely entwined — and there’s so much noise competing for the attention of our government leaders — generating more noise can be as dangerous as it is distracting.

Only when data analysis is approached in good faith can we begin to map a way forward for shaping what our community will look like in a post-pandemic world.

It is therefore a disservice to our community to state that “correlation is not causation” and then go on to imply that public transit usage automatically leads to more infections, especially when ignoring other, potentially more significant factors (such as population size). Media compounds the problem when allowing headlines to incorrectly state such flimsy correlations as fact.

For example, when comparing COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts with those of New York, one cannot ignore the fact that New York has triple the population. Likewise, the comparison between New York and California does not consider that New York did not enact large non-essential business closures and stay-at-home orders until the state reached 50 deaths per day on March 22.

Traffic along Beretania Street near Punchbowl Street2.
Traffic along Beretania Street near Punchbowl Street in March 2019 in congested Honolulu. COVID-19 gives the people of Oahu an opportunity to instead prioritize public transportation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

By comparison, California enacted those measures on March 19, when it was reporting five deaths per day.

Moreover, some neighborhoods with low mass-transit usage still show high infection rates, such as Staten Island. In contrast, Manhattan’s rate of verified infection is fairly low.

Perhaps using states as a unit of analysis is inadequate, because they do not match the way people travel on a day-to-day basis. It may make more sense to use metropolitan areas. The metropolitan area with the second most deaths per capita, Albany, Georgia, only has 1% of workers using public transit. By contrast, San Francisco had very few COVID-19 deaths and has the second-highest public transit use.

Significant Factors At Play

But ignoring all this, some have casually suggested that transit riders in New York should opt for cabs and other single occupancy vehicles. This is unrealistic given the sheer number of commuters, as the result would be immediate gridlock.

It is very likely there were far more significant factors at play, such as social distancing, personal behavior, the use of wipes and sanitizers, and the availability of masks and gloves. Other less draconian strategies could provide more options and flexibility in both the prevention of the virus’ spread and the restarting of it in mass transit-dependent communities. Multimodal and short-term operational options exist that don’t include mothballing public transit infrastructure or increasing car dependency and congestion.

In the article, “Automobiles Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City” (Market Urbanism, April 19, 2020), George Mason University senior research fellow Salim Furth, Ph.D., suggests subways may actually slow the spread of a virus in a pandemic. As awareness of the pandemic increased, “subway-dependent people may cut their travel more than car-dependent people.”

However, car owners, feeling more secure in their vehicles, may travel more freely beyond their neighborhood and inadvertently infect others across a broader area.

Furth explains: “Policies and, perhaps, culture appear to have a large impact on infection rate. To the small extent that transportation options matter, automobiles appear to be more dangerous disease vectors than subways.”

On Oahu, we’ve seen how the careful and judicious use of buses has not resulted in a flare up of the virus, while allowing essential workers to get to work and others without access to personal vehicles to shop, obtain essential supplies, and keep doctor’s appointments (about a third of Oahu’s population is unable to drive).

On the other hand, returning to a form of car dependency is expensive: $12,710 per year on average in Hawaii. For a minimum-wage worker who earns $21,008 a year, this represents over half of his or her paycheck versus a bus pass that would cost $840 per year in Honolulu. Consigning everyone to car dependency is not a good affordability strategy.

“To the small extent that transportation options matter, automobiles appear to be more dangerous disease vectors than subways.” – Salim Furth, Ph.D., senior research fellow, George Mason University

Consider further that 1) most households without access to personal cars are lower income, and 2) the share of people who are already cost-burdened on Oahu is increasing dramatically with the unemployment crisis.

As we respond to and recover from COVID-19, we have an opportunity to imagine a new transportation system that connects more people of all ages, ability and socioeconomic status to work, school, worship, recreation, civic engagement, food, and health care more safely, efficiently and sustainably.

The path to that future begins with prioritizing public transit and active transportation needs to create a flexible and responsive transportation system, if we want to meet our climate and community goals. Personal agendas and biases need to be honestly recognized and kept at bay while we gather reliable data, make sound assessments, and deploy strategies that are pragmatic and effective.

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