SEPTA is safe during COVID. Transit access is not - The Philadelphia Inquirer


As the School District of Philadelphia stares down the possibility of resuming in-person classes in November, some have raised concerns about the safety of public transit for student commutes. Many students use SEPTA to get to and from school and may worry about COVID exposure.


Young Philadelphians like myself who rely on transit understand these concerns, but we worry that a lack of understanding, rather than scientific evidence and SEPTA’s progress, could guide riding behavior.


The reality is that transit is safe. The real danger transit faces is that the latest scientific evidence is not reaching our communities. In the short term, residents may skip safe and essential trips to access critical resources like education and health care. In the long term, this behavior may cause us to lose access altogether.


A recent study from the American Public Transit Association found no correlation in virus spread from public transit systems in the United States, including SEPTA. Instead, the study found that a passenger’s end destination, like indoor dining, was most consequential to virus contraction. International studies corroborate these results. Public health professionals overseeing successful contact tracing programs in Paris and Tokyo found no correlation between their public transit systems and virus clusters.


Perhaps this is because transit agencies, including SEPTA, took aggressive action to ensure the health and safety of their passengers. SEPTA is sanitizing every vehicle at least twice a day and power washing every open station overnight. Ventilation on vehicles is strong, with air circulating through an upgraded high-efficiency particulate filter every two to three minutes, in addition to fresh air entering when vehicle doors are opened. For an airborne virus, ventilation is one of the most critical pieces to prevent infection in public spaces. Safe distancing is encouraged and enforced, with adjacent seats blocked from use. Most importantly, riders are keeping their neighbors and communities safe, with mask compliance on parts of SEPTA exceeding 90% in August. Enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, safe distancing modifications, and requiring and providing masks are just three of the 10 measures in SEPTA’s Action Plan for Safe Return to Travel that addresses concerns about commuting during COVID.


While some note that SEPTA is projected to lose $400 million over the next three years, there’s no evidence to believe this loss will affect COVID safety. But invoking fear about the agency’s safety could exacerbate obstacles for mobility while threatening our region’s economic recovery.


Misinformation about safety during the pandemic could have a significant impact on all travelers. If people incorrectly think transit is not safe, we will continue to see more people driving, even when transit may remain their best option to commute to school or work. This switch will exacerbate already congested conditions on our roads, extending commutes for bus riders and motorists.


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