Questioning the value and viability of dense cities is a uniquely American pastime. But there’s one specific aspect of cities that is always being subjected to scare headlines, exaggerated claims about risk, and a constant barrage of trend articles about how dangerous and unhealthy it is, often as a stand-in for the very idea of the city. And that is public transportation.
Reading America's coverage of its public transportation offers a pure distillation of its anxieties and fears. I've been reporting on public transit for four years now, through one subway crisis, two "crime waves," and a pandemic, and I've heard and seen it all. If public transit isn't dangerous, it's a pandemic factory. If it's not a pandemic factory, it's stuffed with gross homeless people. If it's not gross, it's flooding in a storm. If it's not flooding in a storm, it's too crowded and smelly. And if it's not crowded and smelly, it's too empty and therefore scary. And if it's scary, it's dangerous, whether the statistics reflect that or not. One thing is for sure: There's always something terribly wrong with public transit.
Homelessness, pandemics, crime, and extreme weather are all major issues in American life writ large, and hardly unique or limited to public transportation specifically. Still, they're often trotted out as reasons to avoid public transit, as if that would be a fix for anything or anyone. It's a deeply unhealthy way to talk about a critical piece of a nation's infrastructure and makes it all the more difficult to fix the very real problems American public transit has—fixes that require political backing not likely to come as long as Americans continue to regard public transportation so negatively. Before we can fix American public transportation, we need to fix the way we talk about it.
The most recent example of this is a Wall Street Journal article from Monday that ran under the headline "Offices Reopen With Safety Plans, but Big-City Commutes Spook Workers." At first glance, the article itself is fairly unobjectionable. The reporters interviewed commuters, executives, and non-profit leaders who advocate for business interests. They found that a sizable portion of American commuters who used to take public transit are now afraid to do so, and the story ran under a headline to match.
It's only when examining where these fears come from that it becomes apparent just how deeply unhealthy the American media landscape is when it comes to public transit, and how articles just like this one, piled one on top of the other, citing previous articles just like it as evidence of the phenomenon it is now reporting on, make people afraid of public transit, even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests there is, in fact, little to be afraid of.
Aside from a few anecdotal interviews—including one woman in Chicago who is happy to pay $172 extra a week for the privilege to park at her office rather than buy a train pass because she is "afraid to get on the train"—there's little evidence of exactly why people don't want to take transit anymore. The surveys cited are either inconclusive or vague. Only towards the bottom of the article do we learn that a lot of people simply enjoy working from home and don't want to commute at all because commuting by car in a city also sucks a lot. Hardly the referendum on public transportation the headline suggests.
But the most troubling aspect of the article is that, rather than debunk some of the claims about the dangers of commuting by public transit in the COVID era, it asserts, "Studies and reports from 2020 have drawn conflicting conclusions about the extent to which the virus spreads on mass transit." It's a classic gotta-hear-both-sides presentation. It's also wrong.
That hyperlink, included in the original text, takes the reader to a June 2020 Journal article about two studies purporting to show "Public Transit Use Is Associated With Higher Coronavirus Death Rates," as the headline says. Problems abound with the article both at the time of publication and in hindsight.
First, the article doesn't disclose that both studies were working papers, meaning they had not been peer reviewed. One of those papers has still not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but even at the time it acknowledged that other forms of commuting were associated with increased mortality rates and the types of jobs people had was a more significant factor than their commuting methods.
The other paper cited has since been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but not in a way that supports the original Journal headline. In fact, it's essentially a case study for why it's generally a bad idea to report on working papers. Whereas the original working paper found "a significant portion of the disparity" in mortality between African Americans and people of other ethnicities can be "sourced to the use of public transit," the peer-reviewed version reports a much more modest finding: Public transit use correlates with mortality rates only for the month of April 2020. The study says this is "a puzzle" and leaves it at that. (Another "puzzle": Neither the working paper version nor the peer-reviewed one includes any variable relating to housing conditions or density, a major blindspot for any study attempting to determine significant risk factors for respiratory virus transmission. Whether public transit users were likelier to die simply because they were likelier to be members of marginalized communities is, one would think, something that would bear examination.)
Meanwhile, the Journal article published this week opted not to link to any of the number of studies published suggesting public transit is in fact reasonably safe, including one the Journal itself published. A reader could justifiably conclude from this article that they read in the Wall Street Journal that the jury is still out on how dangerous public transportation is, or even that it's unsafe to use it. And that would be plain wrong.
This isn't just about COVID. Another aspect of New York public transit cited in the Journal article as keeping people away from it is that there have been "reports of crime in the city's subway system." Indeed, both the local media and city mayoral candidates spent months breathlessly reporting every instance of crime on the subway, creating a self-sustaining narrative that the subway was particularly dangerous at a time when fewer people were riding it due to the pandemic. Perhaps no public figure played a greater role in forwarding this narrative than former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who paradoxically was also in charge of the state agency that runs the New York City subway. Just when he should have been encouraging people to ride the subway, he told reporters he was afraid to do so himself—not that he ever did so anyways—and "I'm not telling my child to ride the subway, because I'm afraid for my child."
Except this subway crime wave simply wasn't real, a fact everyone seemed more than happy to admit once the Democratic primary ended. Even while the political and popular consensus circled around the subway being a crime-ridden hellhole a shooting or two away from the Bad Old Days of the 1980s, the NYPD's own data did not support the existence of any crime wave at all.
Mass transit is a window into the American psyche for yet another reason. It is a subject on which facts always seem secondary to narratives, a service covered through the psychology and experiences of those who don't and won't use it, or who aspire to never have to use it again, rather than those who do and must, or heaven forfend even prefer it to driving. If transit users were dying or victimized by criminals disproportionately—something that hasn't been established—these would seem like problems to be solved. Instead, the mere perception is used to justify further neglect and disinvestment, punishing the very people who use mass transit. And one thing we do know is public transit riders are disproportionately likely to be poor or members of marginalized communities.
Of course, none of this is to excuse the actual, profound problems with American public transportation specifically—things like systems simply not going where people need them to as frequently as necessary. Surveys of transit riders, even ones who abandon transit for other modes, consistently show that they just want them to run better. But that requires more money. And it's hard for transit systems to get more money when the dominant narrative of public transit in this country is that it is to be avoided at all costs.