COVID and Public Transport

NY State has a population of 19 million people, Florida has a population of 21 million. According to PRB.ORG 20.5% of Floridian’s are elderly – versus 16.5% in NY. Florida is ranked #2 by this percentage – whereas NY is number 26.

We might expect Florida, with a higher elderly population to have a worst COVID outcome than NY – but that’s not even close to being the case. Florida as 2,258 deaths from COVID and NY has over 29,000 – that’s more than 10x worse.

Here’s the public transport connection. Consider this, the NY public transport system has the most passenger trips per day of any system in the US ( and probably very high compared to many cities globally). It has over 9 million passenger trips per day. Florida has a public transport system in Miami (the Metrorail) – with average weekday ridership of 62,000.

Looking at the public transport systems in the US – here’s what we see:

There’s a clear correlation between average daily ridership and COVID deaths per million. Its not a perfect correlation because other factors have a big influence – like hospital capacity etc.

I’m convinced public transport was a big reason for the spread of COVID in NY.

Crowded subway trains are likely a major transmission source of COVID
Photo by Caio Christofoli on

How does the NY transit system stack up in worldwide comparions? According to the source below – in 2015 NYC was the worlds largest system – as measured by number of station. Bigger even than those in China, or Singapore.

In terms of passengers per year – the Asian countries carry more passengers i.e. Beijing carries 3.4bn per year (2014 data) and Tokyo at 3.2bn – but NYC still carries a colossal 1.8bn passengers per year. Add to this the observation that use of face masks seems a lot higher in Asian countries (even pre COVID) than in the American or European cities and we have one of the biggest reasons, in my view, for the rapid spread of COVID in NY.

Lessons for public policy makers:

Shut Down Public Transport much earlier in the crisis. In NYC there was not an official shut down.

Facemask must be mandatory for all passengers. The NY Governor issued a mandatory face mask order on April 15th. Not bad – especially given conflicting and delayed advice from the CDC on the use of face masks. On April 15th there were a cumulative 217,000 confirmed cases of COVID and almost 15,000 deaths. Interesting point – April 14th marked the peak in average daily deaths in NY at 1055 deaths per day.

Cleaning: Don’t wait until May 6th to do the first official cleaning of the NY subway system.

By May 6th – NY had already had 329,000 confirmed COVID cases; and 25,000 deaths.

I can’t help but think the subway linkage was obvious from the get go. Our slow response – and delayed acknowledgement of the importance of face masks (compared to Asian cities) was a major contributor to rapid spread of COVID in NY.

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