Crowds, cleaning practices, air flow, travel time, cost, and convenience: They’re all factors to consider when deciding how to get around during the pandemic. But no matter which form of transportation you choose to use, the overarching advice is the same.

“No matter how you’re traveling, it comes down to the same basic principles — wear a mask, maintain distance from others, and wash your hands [before and after commuting],” says Dr. Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of Infection Prevention Control for Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.

All will lower your risk of contracting the coronavirus and potentially spreading it, whether you’re hopping a crowded subway or setting out on your own two feet. But which travel option should you choose? And which is the least risky? The decision between an enclosed subway filled with other riders, a five-mile walk in 90-degree heat, or a pricy Uber with a driver you don’t know isn’t always easy.

We broke down the pros and cons of various forms of transportation to help your decision-making process, along with tips for making each trip safer during the pandemic. The options here are listed by relative level of risk (low to high), but experts note, travel during a pandemic is always situational.

Note: Risk level is assessed in relation to the pandemic only, and not in terms of street safety.

🚶Walking

Unless you own a car (which may limit your exposure even further), experts agree that outdoor forms of transportation are currently the safest.

“The better the air flow, the less likely the virus can remain in the air,” says Thersa Sweet, associate teaching professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University.

Of course, it’s not practical to walk from, say, Philly to Cape May, but if your commute is within a few miles, let your feet take you where you need to go. It’s the cheapest form of transit, and includes a built-in added bonus: Exercise. Even when outdoors, you should still wear a mask, and maintain at least six feet from others.

Pros:

  • ✅ Free + free exercise
  • ✅ Easier to maintain and control social distancing
  • ✅ Outdoors → high air circulation; data suggests COVID-19 transmission is lower outdoors

Cons:

  • ❌ Time-consuming/inefficient for long distances
  • ❌ Less comfortable to wear a mask, especially in hot weather
  • ❌ Challenging in poor weather conditions

How to make it safer:

  • ➡️ Wear a mask
  • ➡️ Dodge crowds; don’t be afraid to step off the sidewalk onto the grass
A man walks across the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A man walks across the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

🚴 Biking

Like walking, biking is on the low end of the COVID-19 risk spectrum. Even if busy streets force you to break social distancing guidelines, you’re generally better off on a bike than you are inside a bus or other enclosed environments.

“If you’re whizzing past someone fairly closely on your bike, I wouldn’t be too concerned — COVID-19 is something that’s shown to be mostly transmitted when in close proximity to other people for long periods of time,” says Sachinwalla.

Out of precaution, if you’re riding through the city or a crowded area, wear a mask.

Pros:

  • ✅ Free (excluding bike purchases and repairs) + free exercise
  • ✅ Easier to maintain and control social distancing
  • ✅ Outdoors → high air circulation; data suggests COVID-19 transmission is lower outdoors
  • ✅ Convenient for short distances

Cons:

  • ❌ Time-consuming/inefficient for long distances
  • ❌ Less comfortable to wear a mask, especially in hot weather
  • Bike demand is high; supply for new bikes (especially those under $500) and parts is limited at many bike shops
  • ❌ Challenging in poor weather conditions
  • ❌ Lack of bike infrastructure to make urban biking safe

How to make it safer:

  • ➡️ Wear a mask

🚴‍♂️ Bike shares (Indego)

Don’t own a bike? Using a bike share, experts say, is only slightly riskier.

“It seems more and more that contaminated surfaces play a more minor role in the transmission of COVID-19, so I wouldn’t avoid bike shares because of the shared surfaces,” says Sachinwalla. “It’s always a good idea to wipe down surfaces from a general cleanliness perspective, but you don’t need to go crazy. Wipe down the handlebars and brakes, but you can skip the tires.”

Indego, the city’s official ride share program, has elevated its sanitation efforts of high-contact areas at the most popular stations, and disinfects all bikes that come through the warehouse for repair. It’s also focusing on increased demand, adding a station to the Schuylkill Banks area for the summer.

Pros:

  • ✅ Affordable ($12 for a day pass, $13-$17 a month for a membership) + free exercise
  • ✅ Easier to maintain and control social distancing
  • ✅ Outdoors → high air circulation; data suggests COVID-19 transmission is higher indoors
  • ✅ Convenient for short distances
  • ✅ Cheaper than buying a bike

Cons:

  • ❌ Not touch-less: The bikes have shared contact surfaces, and you have to use a kiosk touch-screen unless you have the Indego smartphone app
  • ❌ Only an option for those ages 14 and up
  • ❌ There are time restrictions for how long you can use one; they’re also inefficient for long distances
  • ❌ Less comfortable to wear a mask, especially in hot weather

How to make it safer:

  • ➡️ Bring sanitizing wipes (or hand sanitizer and paper towels) to wipe down shared high-touch surfaces, like handle bars, brakes, gear shifters, and baskets
  • ➡️ Wear a mask, especially when riding through crowded areas
  • ➡️ Download the Indego app for contactless checkout of bikes

🚗 Renting a car

If you don’t own a car and want to travel longer distances, renting a car is among the least risky options. It’s also the most expensive.

If you choose to rent, take note: Worry less about the car, and more about any passengers you invite along for the ride.

“For the vast majority of situations, you need to be in close contact with someone to get infected from COVID-19,” says Sachinwalla. “Between when the person before you drops off the car, then the cleaning, and then when you get in, I wouldn’t consider a rental car high risk.”

If you want to be extra cautious, wipe down the steering wheel with sanitizing wipes before taking off, and roll down the windows for a few minutes.

“Presumably the company who’s renting the car to you will do all of that, but you don’t know for sure, and five minutes of your time isn’t too big of an inconvenience,” says Sweet.

For added assurance, many major rental car companies, like Enterprise and Avis, allow you to read about their coronavirus protocols online.

Pros:

  • ✅ Limited exposure to others
  • ✅ You don’t need to wear a mask while driving

Cons:

  • ❌ Expensive
  • ❌ You may need to interact with others indoors to check out the car

How to make it safer:

  • ➡️ Wipe down high-touch areas, like the steering wheel, radio knobs, and gear shift
  • ➡️ Wear a mask when picking up and dropping off the car, and minimize time spent inside the checkout office
  • ➡️ Be mindful of who you travel with

🚕 Rideshares (Uber, Lyft, etc.) and taxis

When you take a rideshare or taxi, you only have to come into contact with one other person — the driver. (Uber and Lyft have suspended all carpooling services that would pair you with strangers heading in a similar direction.) Masks are required, and Uber drivers have to take a selfie to prove they’re wearing one when they start driving for the day.

However, mask compliance is never guaranteed. If your driver shows up without a mask or isn’t properly wearing a mask, be prepared to cancel your ride. The close quarters inside a vehicle isn’t ideal, and the driver is likely to be in contact with many other riders as part of the job.

“The driver could have pretty high exposure, so it’s hard to say if it’s safer than public transport, and Uber’s going to get expensive,” says Sweet. “Try to limit the amount of time you’re in the vehicle and how close you are to the driver — always sit in the backseat.”

Pros:

  • ✅ Convenient
  • ✅ Low and controlled exposure to other people
  • ✅ Masks are required

Cons:

  • ❌ Can be expensive
  • ❌ Driver’s exposure to others is high
  • ❌ Limited ability to social distance
  • ❌ Air circulation is low when windows are closed

How to make it safer:

  • ➡️ Ask driver to roll down the windows when weather allows; if it’s raining, try to keep a few windows cracked. “You don’t have to feel the wind blowing in your face for it to work — just cracking it an inch is a lot better than nothing,” says James Lo, an assistant professor at Drexel University’s department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering who studies ventilation and air movement.
  • ➡️ Ask the driver to set the air conditioning on a non-recirculation mode, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention; in the summer, pressing the recirculation button makes it easier for your car to stay cooler, but prevents your car from pulling in fresh air from outside. “When set to recirculate, theoretically, if someone who was in the car before you had COVID-19, there could be virus circulating,” says Sachinwalla.
  • ➡️ Don’t get into the car if the driver isn’t wearing their mask or wearing it properly
  • ➡️ Sit in the back seat
  • ➡️ Use hand sanitizer before and after entering vehicle, and wash hands once you get to your destination
Otniel Agape Tjan looks on from the driver side of his car near Oregon Street in South Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday, July 9, 2020. Tjan has been driving for Uber and takes proper precautions, including a clear tarp he hung between the front and back seats. He also wipes down his car every day before he starts driving.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Otniel Agape Tjan looks on from the driver side of his car near Oregon Street in South Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday, July 9, 2020. Tjan has been driving for Uber and takes proper precautions, including a clear tarp he hung between the front and back seats. He also wipes down his car every day before he starts driving.

🚌 Septa: Subway, buses, and regional rail

One potential positive: Buses and trains are cleaner. SEPTA has amped up its cleaning measures, sanitizing vehicles at least twice a day, and high-touch surfaces on trains, buses, trolleys, and facilities several times per day. Open stations are disinfected and power washed overnight.

Yet, while cleaning is a good first step, it can’t eliminate coronavirus risk.

“I’m more worried about what’s in the air than touching things because you can always wash your hands,” says Sweet. “Whether it’s a train, bus, or car, it’s just like being inside a building. You have to think about the dose — is there someone in that vehicle who could potentially be infectious? That’s a complete unknown because people can be presymptomatic, asymptomatic, or mildly sick and think it’s their allergies, so the dose [of COVID-19 in the air] remains a big question.”

Wearing a mask is required on Septa, and masks have been shown to help reduce the amount of COVID-19 particles floating around. The biggest challenge is that not everyone follows the rules, and not everyone wears their mask properly. (Some masks are available at the passenger or customer service offices of Septa’s major transportation centers and train stations. There’s also a PPE vending machine in Suburban Station.) According to an analysis by SEPTA, roughly 8 out of 10 riders are complying with the mask requirement. Compliance ranges from as low as 63% on the Market-Frankford El to 96% on Regional Rail. Without 100% compliance, airborne transmission remains a risk.

Riders are asked to respect seat barriers and to maintain social distancing. There are vehicle capacity limits currently in place, and plans to deploy social distancing “coaches” at some Center City stations.

On days when weather allows, bus roof hatches will be open.

“The hatches let in a fair amount of air, and because of the air flow, I’d say buses may be better than the subway,” says Lo. “The subway stations use mechanical fans to bring in outside air, but it’s never 100% outside air in the stations. When the doors open on the subway, you’re mixing in underground air, which dilutes what’s happening inside the car, but outside air is definitely better.”

Pros:

  • ✅ Affordable (and free for children under age 12 accompanied by a fare-paying adult)
  • ✅ Masks are required
  • ✅ Enhanced cleaning measures are in place

Cons:

  • ❌ Not all riders wear masks or wear them correctly
  • ❌ Lack of mask enforcement
  • ❌ Enclosed environment with no personal window access (Note: Buses will open hatches in good weather)

How to make it safer:

  • ➡️ Try your best to social distance while waiting for and when inside the bus/subway/train
  • ➡️ Minimize length of trips; If you can get off a stop or two earlier and walk, do so
  • ➡️ Wash your hands before and after commuting
A SEPTA bus that reads, "Philly never backs down, mask up".
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
A SEPTA bus that reads, "Philly never backs down, mask up".