Taking the Mass Out of Mass Transit

People who use public transportation are more likely to die from COVID-19, a new study shows.

Stalled trains. Buses with broken air conditioning. Crime. These are some of the conditions mass transit users face in cities across the country. And now they have to worry about dying, too.

A new study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that people who commuted to work via public transportation had higher COVID-19 death rates than their peers, averaging 1.21 more deaths per 1,000 people than those who telecommuted or commuted by car. For the millions of people who rely on public transportation to get to work—or will once more offices open up—the findings add another layer of fear around their health and safety as they return to in-person work.

Dustin Ogden, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial practice, says the challenge for organizations and government officials is to find innovative ways to keep people from abandoning mass transit while still keeping them safe. “There’s only so much cleaning and social distancing you can do,” says Ogden.

It isn’t going to be an easy task. About half the professionals who responded to a recent Korn Ferry survey said they are fearful of going back to an office due to health concerns. Sitting next to or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger on a crowded train or bus for 20 minutes or more isn’t likely to ease those concerns. Moreover, in cities like New York, where the transportation infrastructure is stretched to capacity and badly in need of updating, a mass return of employees could easily overwhelm the system. “You still want buses and trains running, but you want to better utilize them so that they are not flooded at peak times,” says Ogden.

Some ways to do that, says Dan Pulver, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Industrial and Real Estate practice, include varying the workforce between home and office so that not every employee is commuting every day. Firms can also create flexible hours and shifts to reduce peak-time travel. “There are many ways to rethink the employee value proposition to shape the way people return to the office and, as a result, how they use mass transit,” says Pulver.

Those kinds of steps are important, experts say, since mass transit carries some social issues with it, such as income inequality. Those with higher incomes, after all, have the option of driving to work or using ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. What’s more, another study suggests that COVID-19’s higher fatality rate among Black Americans could be due to their higher reliance on public transportation.

Pulver says it’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that public transportation is important to fighting climate change. He says corporate and government leaders have to maintain investment in public transportation infrastructure and undertake efforts to keep people riding. In some cases, that may mean tax benefits or other incentives to return people to the office via public transportation.

“We don’t want people fighting to get into crowded subways cars, but we also want to keep investing in and creating sustainable cities for everyone,” says Pulver.