Nation’s largest transit agency launches study with Homeland Security and MIT

Transit officials in New York are teaming up with the Department of Homeland Security and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study how to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus on buses and trains.Ifand how muchthe virus spreads on mass transit is a stubborn question. Ridership is down in cities around the world largely due to people working from home and businesses closing, but also because of fear of contracting the virus. Studies and reports this year have drawn conflicting conclusions about the extent to which the virus spreads on mass transit. Some of the studies have been conducted by economists and transit specialists who dont have expertise in the spread of viruses and other pathogens.
Researchers plan to release different types of water-based aerosols, including those that mimic respiratory droplets which can be inhaled by people within 6 feet of each other as well as tiny particles that can travel further and linger in the air for hours. The studies will be conducted on transit vehicles that are empty and not in service. They will be carried out on vehicles in their normal state as well as on those with doors and windows open and with enhancements to ventilation and air-filtration systems. The study will be led by MITs Lincoln Laboratory.
Don Bansleben, a program manager at the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, said it is clear that mass transit riders in the U.S. might have been exposed to the virus by fellow riders. However, Mr. Bansleben said, I dont believe theres any definitive evidence that has shown that public transportation is really a source of spreading the virus, especially in large clusters of people.
New Yorks Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest transit agency in the nation, carried about 8 million riders daily on the subway, buses and two commuter rail systems before the pandemic. Its operations are focused on New York City, which bore the brunt of the coronavirus in the spring when tens of thousands of people died. Weekday subway ridership currently is down about 70% compared with pre-pandemic levels. Weekday commuter rail ridership is down between 75% and 80%.
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Meghan Ramsey, a researcher at the Lincoln Laboratory who is leading the study, said the idea is to measure contamination in the air and on surfaces to understand the relative risk of contracting the virus and the efficacy of mitigation methods.
Mark Dowd, the MTAs chief innovation officer, said the agency asked DHS to conduct the study to determine scientifically whether the virus can be transmitted on transit and how to mitigate any risks.
The emphasis in combating the virus that causes Covid-19 has shifted during this year from surfaces to air quality. The shift came as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in the early summer that person-to-person interactions for extended periods, not surfaces, are the leading cause of infections.
The project team says the tests are safe. The mock viral droplets being released contain ingredients common in household products, such as glycerol, which is found in soap, and fluorescent dye found in laundry detergent. Nevertheless, the study is subject to an environmental assessment and public comment period which begins Tuesday. Researchers hope to start the study in late January or early February and to have results by early spring.
A DHS spokeswoman, Anne Cutler, noted that the mitigation measures being tested such as improvements to ventilation systems or opening windows are simple and cheap. Ms. Cutler said the agency hopes lessons learned from the study can be applied nationwide.
Traveling on trains and buses means potential exposure to the coronavirus, so cities are racing to make their public transit systems safe. WSJ explores how things like sanitizing robots, working from home and expanded bike lanes are changing our commutes. Video/Illustration: Jaden Urbi and Zoë Soriano
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