Transit, housing advocates fight coronavirus density stigma

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The immediate need for transit systems nationwide is federal funding to cover massive farebox-revenue and tax losses related to COVID-19.

A parallel concern is winning back ridership and dispelling the notion that density per se contributes to the coronavirus.

Mask-wearing New Yorkers await a bus in Times Square.

“Our understanding of COVID is much more sophisticated,” said David Bragdon, executive director of TransitCenter, a New York-based national advocacy group. “Transit is not a spreader, nor is it a refuge, either.”

Whereas outbreaks earlier in the pandemic largely traced to urban areas, recent waves of the virus have included rural and suburban areas and areas with low mass transit use, such as Houston and Phoenix.

As employees begin to return to offices and ridership incrementally returns large metropolitan regions, transit officials and advocates cite successes with mass transit abroad.

“I think everybody has done a great job at persuading people that the initial paranoia of transit being a source of [infection] and a dangerous place may have been misplaced,” Janno Lieber, the capital construction chief of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said on a webcast sponsored by think tank Regional Plan Association.

The state-run MTA, which operates New York City’s subways, buses, two commuter rail lines and several interborough bridges and tunnels, is one of the largest municipal bond issuers with roughly $46 billion in debt including special credits. Ridership across the system dropped more than 90% since the pandemic escalated in March before slowly improving over the past month.

The authority is seeking $3.9 billion in federal aid to match what it received under the CARES Act in March, but Congress is stalled with Senate Republicans opposed to local aid that is included in a plan House Democrats passed in May. The MTA projects about a $12 billion deficit through next year.

Lieber said the MTA’s massive cleaning and riders wearing masks “at well over 90%” have benefited the image of transit, although a setback occurred with the release Tuesday of a video showing unmasked revelers storming a bus in Queens in the middle of the night and holding an impromptu party.

“People are starting to recognize that in Asia, where they’ve gone back to work post-COVID, the mass transit systems have nowhere been identified as having been a source of spread in any meaningful way.”

Overall ridership variables, Lieber said, include how quickly the economy rebounds and how extensively companies implement work-at-home measures.

Lieber called social media behemoth Facebook’s 700,000-square-foot lease agreement for the Farley Building in Midtown Manhattan “a vote of confidence in in-person working by a major tech company, which is really symbolic.” The former post office building sits above the new Moynihan train station, which is part of the Penn Station complex.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said New York is the only U.S. region that’s anywhere near Europe in terms of seriously looking at ways to reopen.

“Europe’s transit systems — across the board you look at Vienna, you look at Paris, you go over to Asia, you look at Tokyo — they have high ridership, even now, and they have not traced an outbreak of coronavirus back to their transit systems,” Sifuentes said on a Bond Buyer podcast.

According to Bragdon, ridership trends have been changing sharply during the pandemic. “Boston and San Francisco are very good at this, changing schedules and carving up routes,” he said on a TransitCenter podcast. That includes providing masks and hand sanitizers at stations.

Housing advocates also worry about the density stigma.

“I think the data is getting to the point where I think there is no longer hitting on density as hard as they were earlier in the pandemic, and that is a good thing. But in some ways, the damage is done,” said Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council.

“It’s casually mentioned in the newspaper and I think you will hear your friends who are debating whether to live in New York City or wondering why we live in New York City and you hear ‘all of these people.’”

Density, Katz added, has benefits during a pandemic, including walking proximity to medical facilities.

Her organization’s study of COVID-19 cases found that while other dense urban centers had fewer coronavirus cases than New York, rural hotspots had higher case rates and suburban counties surrounding the five boroughs had more cases per capita.

Overemphasizing density, Katz added, distracts for real-risk factors including overcrowding in institutional settings, substandard housing conditions and racial inequality.

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Transportation industry Coronavirus Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York Affordable housing