In the working paper now available at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Harris maps metro turnstile data to infection rate by zip code, and says the recent flattening of New York’s epidemic curve is linked to the 65% drop in ridership that occurred in the first half of March. In an editorial from New York Daily News detailing the contents of the newspaper, it also highlights the heavy death toll among MTA workers, which hit 79 people on April 20, as other evidence.
In this moment of deep uncertainty for public transit agencies, the dialogue around the document shows how easily metros and buses can be scapegoats, even if they provide millions of essential trips during the pandemic.
To arrive at his deduction, Harris presents a series of thematic maps supposed to map occupied train lines to infection rates, claiming that subway lines are the “right unit of analysis” for studying the role of the system. The map that has been most widely shared online shows some of the stops along the 7 train – the local Flushing line – superimposed on a zip code infection rate map as it travels from Manhattan to the heart of Queens . He also notes the decline in ridership relative to the city’s epidemic curve.
Yet disease modeling experts say the data visualizations that Harris includes do not seem to clearly support the correlation he is trying to draw: for example, only 13 of the 22 stops shown on his map of the local Flushing line are located in postal codes with infection rates greater than 100 per 10,000 people.
The document also does not try to unravel the many confounding factors that could easily make the metro not the main vector. In the absence of statistical analysis to contextualize the importance of the figures it presents, it is impossible to say that ridership is more than a reflection of the other types of activities which decreased in mid-March, after the closure of public schools and restaurants and the maintenance of activity. home orders have been issued.
Abbey Collins, director of communications for the New York MTA, called the document “defective – full stop.”
Public transport researchers also warn that no such dramatic link between the use of public transport and viral spread has been found elsewhere in the world. For example, the city with the longest metro network in the world, Seoul, may also be among the best for controlling Covid-19. The fact that the most recent increases in infections are occurring in rural areas of the United States could also give gullible readers a break. Salim Furth, senior researcher in urban economics at George Mason University, dissected the article on the blog Market Urbanism and determined that more attention should be paid to the infectious threat of car travel, considering (among others factors) that Staten Island, New York City’s least dependent public transit district, now has the highest infection rate in the city.
In a dying blog article criticizing the article, mathematician, transit analyst and CityLab contributor Alon Levy detailed several reasons why metro and track workers could have been more severely affected than cyclists – “Contamination at work is not the same as contamination during travel,” writes Levy. .
Harris argues that the basic premise of the argument is sound. “From the point of view of the highest level of evidence, this is a correlational study – there is no way around this,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t see how a serious public health practitioner, after examining the facts, would have recommended other than focusing heavily on the metro system like the fuse that ignited the epidemic in New York. “
This is not to say that the germs did not spread in the metro. As one of the many places in New York where people congregate, subway cars have undoubtedly magnified the coronavirus pandemic, said Gershon. But to measure with confidence the role it has played in relation to taxis, schools, restaurants, workplaces and other shared spaces, one would need “an important and costly study with many graduate students.” A researcher would likely need to clean up a large number of subway poles, conduct a detailed investigation of the routes and commuting habits of a representative sample of thousands of cyclists, and pass antibody tests for each. , like what Gershon did in a 2009 analysis of the impact of subway noise on hearing loss among New Yorkers published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Gershon is now preparing for new investigative research: says she hopes to partner with the Transit Workers Union to study how working conditions and working practices could have led to high infection rates and number of Covid-19 deaths among MTA workers.
However, the mysteries of the coronavirus would present a major challenge in replicating this type of study, said Cooley. Above all, with H1N1, Cooley knew the rates of immunity to viruses and re-infection among New Yorkers. Because the coronavirus is so new, with no prior human immunity, an uncertain incubation period, and an unknown rate of reinfection, a safe simulation of transmission across New York may not yet be possible.
The Harris newspaper proves at least one thing very clearly: the ease with which the metro can be blamed for an invisible disaster, especially in a very partisan environment that pits cities almost everywhere else. Transit has long carried a social stigma in the self-governing United States, with low-income people of color and other marginalized groups constituting an inordinate share of passengers. New York City was already a national outlier in many ways, including the use of public transit. Now, with the help of the MIT newspaper, his famous metro has become ammunition in the growing war against coronavirus culture. “It is rather strange to see New York journalists losing their shit on the beaches of FL while the New York subway is still operating,” said Kyle Smith, spokesperson for the National review, tweeted saturday. “It seems obvious that the metro was a primary means of spreading the disease, perhaps the most important means across the country. “
New York City leaders will soon face the late response to the coronavirus and the mass transit workers who are dying in such large numbers. Before the pandemic, the MTA already had work to do to improve service delays and overcrowded trains, and it is not known how the agency will now move forward, faced with an 8.5 billion deficit dollars and a continued need for strengthened health and sanitation protocols. But in a city as large and densely populated as New York, public transit drives the economy; while some commuters with means can choose to buy cars when the lock is released, many workers and students will inevitably get back on track. Said Gershon: “We can never reopen without the metro. “