Is public transportation safe for our health? Time to rethink our commute to work!

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has changed our everyday lives. Not least, the way we work. Since the lockdown, many of us have been working from home, freeing us from the daily commute. But what happens next? Will travelling be the same once normality resumes?

Public transportation – a nest for disease!

We already know that public transportation is a nest for disease. But this awareness of the link between close contact with others and infection rates is heightened as we come out the other side of this pandemic. This study looking at the connection between public transport and the airborne transmission of disease analysed journeys on the London Underground, which transports 1.265 billion travelers every year.

It found a clear relationship between public transport use and the transmission of infectious diseases.

It also showed a higher incidence of influenza-like illnesses in London boroughs where people have more contact with the underground system, or for people who have more contacts with surfaces and other travelers during their commute.

And the transmission of diseases isn’t restricted to underground systems. This literature review looked at how infectious disease can spread on various forms of public transport. It found that repeated trips and long journeys, typical of any commuter, led to higher rates of infection, and that crowding on buses can result in higher infection rates.

These findings reinforce what we already instinctively know — that daily commutes on crowded public transportation systems are bound to increase your risk of becoming infected with disease.

Is the rate of COVID-19 higher in cities with undergrounds or buses?

Understandably, people returning to work are worried about higher rates of COVID-19 in cities with high numbers of commuters using underground systems, buses and other forms of public transport. Let’s have a look at the data.

Some of the areas and cities with the highest infection rates of COVID-19 such as New York with 185,653 cases and London with 25,499 cases are also well-known for their public transportation systems.

In New York, statistics show that 56 per cent of the population uses the public transport system, which comprises 468 subway stations and a network of buses and overground trains. The population of New York takes journeys on public transport more than 3.8 billion times every year, with an average figure of 8.6 million rides per weekday.

As well as having one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Europe, London has one of the best-known transport systems worldwide. Its famous Underground has a daily ridership of 5 million, served by 270 stations. Meanwhile, its bus network is one of the most extensive in the world with 1.8 billion passenger journeys a year.

It stands to reason that once transport resumes as usual, there could be multiple opportunities for infections to continue.

What options can we implement in order to make it a safer place?

Of course, going back to work and using public transportation systems to get us there will be unavoidable. If you’re worried about the risk of infection, be reassured that there are a number of measures to make commuting safer.

If your commute involves flying, be aware of hygiene as soon as you step into the airport. Know that trays at security checks are among the dirtiest places in the airport, so be sure to wash your hands or use a hand sanitiser after touching them. The same goes after collecting your luggage from the carousel.

On the plane, sit away from the entrance/exit points and at a window so you have less contact with other passengers.

If you’re travelling to work on a bus, try to find a seat away from other people. Be mindful that any surfaces you touch such as handrails could be contaminated, so wash your hands or use sanitiser as soon as you can after your journey.

The same goes for travelling by rail or tube. Poles, seats and handrails are all a hotbed of germs, so follow the advice on hand-washing after your journey or use hand sanitiser while you’re on the go.

Biking or walking, the new alternatives

If at all possible, try to avoid public transport altogether. If you live close enough to your workplace, why not consider biking or walking there as an alternative?

Apart from avoiding the infection hotspots found at transport hubs, you will reap many other benefits.

Research published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) found that people who cycled or walked to work had a lower risk of death by any cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Other research by the UEA (University of East Anglia) revealed that commuters who walked or cycled to their workplace felt less stressed and had better powers of concentration.

As we head into the post-COVID era, walking or cycling to work could mark the start of a new fitness regime and help you stay trim, as demonstrated in a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

It looked at a number of different methods of travelling to work, and found that overall those who cycled their route had the lowest body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage of all the people in the study. Those who walked to work showed similar results.

Take home message

As workplaces reopen, you may feel nervous about your commute. If you use public transport, seek out quiet seats, avoid touching your face and wash your hands frequently. For peace of mind, keep a bottle of Your Sanitiser with you to disinfect your hands and protect yourself and others.

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