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SEPTA is safe during COVID. Transit access is not. | Opinion

The real danger transit faces is that the latest scientific evidence about safe commuting is not reaching our communities.

SEPTA vehicles in front of headquarters at 1234 Market St. in Center City Philadelphia, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.
SEPTA vehicles in front of headquarters at 1234 Market St. in Center City Philadelphia, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

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.

» READ MORE: SEPTA and Philly schools should focus on safe transportation for reopenings | Opinion

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.

One set of maps from Research for Action, the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium, and Baltimore Education Resource Commission to show commute times for each school within city boundaries risks giving wrong estimates. The maps do not overlay school catchment boundaries, which define the area from which a school takes students. Although there is an assumed risk of exposure in public spaces, exposure length is an important determinant of contraction, and it is unlikely prolonged exposure would occur during commutes within catchments. One could see how misinformation, coupled with a lack of knowledge, could discourage these essential trips and lead to service reductions — which in turn could have disastrous financial and societal implications.

» READ MORE: Transportation is another pandemic hurdle for those seeking treatment

TransitCenter used a Center for Neighborhood Technology tool to model the effect of a 50% service cut to peak service and 30% cut to off-peak service in Greater Philadelphia. They found profound potential impact on transit access for our most vulnerable residents: 396,136 people would lose access to frequent full-day transit, as well as 141,557 jobs currently near the service. This includes 148,530 households, 34,072 of which lack access to a private vehicle. Over 30,000 second- and third-shift workers would lose access to transit entirely. And while Black residents make up 20% of the region, 44% of those who would lose access to frequent full-day service are Black.

Young Philadelphians understand that reinvigorated transit is an essential element of a sustainable, prosperous, and equitable future. Unjustified fear about SEPTA services will only set us back, reducing confidence in transit, and destabilizing our most vulnerable neighbors who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

Will Herzog is the chair of the SEPTA Youth Advisory Council (YAC) and has served on the YAC since 2013.