03 May Jonathan Cartu Convey: Subway riders hold out hope for futuristic cleaning to rest
NEW YORK — Ultraviolet radiation robots that sanitize subway cars in a flash. Nanoparticles that kill Covid-19 on bus poles and subway seats for three months, non-stop, after just a single application.
In the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s headlong search for ways to woo riders back to the nation’s biggest transit system once the pandemic eases, no idea is too outlandish.
Subways and buses are the circulatory system of the most economically important city in America — they carry more than 5 million people a day during normal times, from grocery clerks to investment bankers, to and from their homes and jobs.
They’ve also likely been a central conduit for the spread of Covid-19 and are seen as among the factors in New York becoming the epicenter of the crisis.
The city’s — and by extension the country’s — economic recovery from the pandemic may well depend on New Yorkers’ willingness to return to the subway. The city’s 8.4 million residents cannot all drive to work. Nor can they all walk or bike, though those methods will likely gain in popularity during the recovery.
Rather, it’s up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s famously sclerotic Metropolitan Transportation Authority — whose leaders only weeks ago assured riders it was safe to travel the trains and buses — to somehow reassure them it’s safe to come back in the coming months.
“It’s going to be a long time before I would let any member of my family into a crowded bus or subway,” said Dick Ravitch, the former MTA chairman credited with saving the subway from financial collapse in the 1980s, in an interview this week.
Officials are exploring the feasibility of taking the temperatures of some passengers before they enter the subway system. They’re mining the experience of their global counterparts from Seoul to Milan who are ahead of New York on the pandemic’s trajectory.
And in recent weeks, the MTA has begun applying a chemical compound to surfaces in its subways and buses that authority officials say could continuously eradicate Covid-19 for up to three months
After a period of time, the MTA swabs the surfaces and sends the samples to a lab to determine if there are any microbes, germs or viruses on them, an official told POLITICO, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press.
The MTA declined to identify the chemical it says it has applied to each of its subway cars and about a quarter of its buses, except to say that it is an “anti microbial biostatic compound.” Workers administer it using an electrostatic applicator.
“We’re working with federal and other labs to determine whether the product has a virus-killing efficacy that lasts beyond the initial application,” said MTA chairman Pat Foye.
MTA officials declined to name the product’s manufacturers, but expressed hope that their claims of long-term virus-killing capacity prove true.
“If that were to occur, that would be a great development,” Foye said. “We have not had it confirmed, not to say that it won’t be confirmed.”
“It doesn’t pose any health issues,” he added.
For wary straphangers, that may take some convincing.
Making matters worse, the MTA will almost certainly have to make its persuasive pitch before there’s widespread availability of an effective vaccine or antiviral treatment.
“We’re going to be appealing to tens of thousands of MTA colleagues and literally millions of customers and making a case,” Foye said.
It’s a tall order.
“I can tell you I would be really scared to get on a subway train [right now],” said Richard Florida, the University of Toronto professor known for his research on cities and the creative class.“That tells me something. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool urbanist.”
Roughly 450,000 New Yorkers are riding the subway system these days. Before the pandemic, daily ridership was 5.5 million. Today’s riders are largely essential workers: the nurses, doctors, grocery store workers and home health care aides without whom New York City could not battle the virus. Many are of modest means with few alternate transportation options.
Those who can work from home are largely doing so, and presumably will continue to do so as long as their employers allow. For a while, as the MTA ramps up to higher levels of service, that should suit it just fine.
But the MTA’s finances are fare dependent, it’s facing financial stress that Ravitch says exceeds that of the 1970s, when New York City almost went bankrupt, and at some point, it will have to proactively drive up ridership for the sake of its own bottom line. That will pose something of a marketing challenge, particularly given the high fatality rate suffered by the New Yorkers most exposed to the system, the MTA’s own workers. As of Friday afternoon, 98 had died from the coronavirus.
“What a tragedy that Andy Byford is not leading New York City transit right now,” said Brad Lander, a Councilman from Brooklyn, referring to the former transit chief who clashed with Cuomo and resigned in January. “We just had the system’s best leader in a generation and right at the moment that we need him, [he] is not there.”
As part of its appeal, the MTA will have to convince New Yorkers that the subways are clean. The governor is already planning to close the subway system from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for the first time in its 24-7 history to more effectively disinfect it and clear out the homeless. But Cuomo cast that as an effort benefiting the essential workers who ride the system right now.
When it’s time to start marketing to those New Yorkers with more commuting choices, the MTA is looking to things like ultraviolet radiation. Such radiation is now used in hospitals for disinfection, Foye said, and…