No worries with ‘crowded’ Red Line train

Aloisi calls the T a ‘fairly low-risk environment’

I took a Red Line train last week that was crowded according to the MBTA’s COVID-19 crowding standards, but the consensus on this week’s Codcast was that I didn’t need to worry.

My train car last Tuesday had about 65 people on it, one shy of the level the T says qualifies as crowded on a Red Line car. All of the passengers were wearing masks. Those seated had at least one seat separating them from other passengers. There were people standing in the middle of the car often near other passengers.

Jim Aloisi, the former secretary of transportation and TransitMatters board member, called my story on the crowded train ride a mild over-reaction “Your article might have given people an impression that they should be fearful of a situation that I don’t think is any more or less risky than any of the other activities that people do normally all the time,” he said.

Aloisi called the T a “fairly low-risk environment” as long as riders don’t spend too long on trains, keep their distance from other passengers, wear face coverings, and use trains where the ventilation system is working properly.

“If you look at those factors, it struck me that your experience was pretty good,” Aloisi said. “There is no such thing as leaving your home to zero risk in the middle of a pandemic.”

Aloisi said the biggest risk in riding the subway system is if a train breaks down and the ventilation system goes out. Then you could have a problem, he said, noting that breakdowns were not uncommon prior to the coronavirus.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of public transportation,” said Caitlin Allen-Connelly, the program director at the business group A Better City. She said the average commuting time for T riders is around 29 minutes and in low-income communities it can rise to an hour. The key for riders, she said, is to wear face coverings and keep their distance from other passengers.

Overall, Allen-Connelly said, the T is doing a good job of cleaning buses and subways. Even though the total number of passengers is way down, the T is operating much of the bus and subway system at pre-COVID levels, to keep the number of passengers per vehicle down. On the bus system, where more riders have returned, the T has developed an app that allows riders to see how many passengers are on the next bus and determine whether they want to get on board or not.

The T’s crowding standard says a 40-foot bus is now crowded if 20 people are aboard, compared to 56 pre-COVID. It’s 46 passengers on a Green Line trolley instead of 100, 62 on an Orange Line car instead of 141, and 42 on a Blue Line car instead of 86. Those passenger levels use a World Health Organization standard of just over three feet of separation between passengers.

The crowding numbers are much smaller using the US Centers of Disease Control standard of 6 feet of separation. According to an analysis by A Better City, which calculated passenger levels slightly differently than the T, a 40-foot bus would be crowded with 10 passengers using 6 feet of separation, a Green Line car with 18, and a Red Line car with 21.

Allen-Connelly said most transit systems are using the 3-foot social distancing protocol the T is following and she thinks that is acceptable. She said the T is doing its part and passengers need to do theirs, wearing masks, using sanitizer, and staying off the system if they feel sick.

“The notion that we need to adopt here is that it’s a shared responsibility,” she said.

Will Molloy of Dorchester is someone who used the Red Line to commute to work pre-COVID and occasionally used it to go into town to visit friends. He said he hasn’t used the T since April because he’s working at home and he gets around now by Uber or Blue Bike.

How much space does he think is acceptable between passengers? “Having at least one seat between us I’d feel comfortable,” Molloy said. “That’s about how much room I’m apart from other people at the gym and I feel comfortable. Scientifically, maybe that’s not the best answer, but I don’t know.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Neither Allen-Connelly nor Aloisi are riding the T currently – Allen-Connelly because she’s a commuter rail rider and she’s working from home now and Aloisi because of a non-COVID personal health issue. Aloisi said he can’t wait to get back on the T.

“I can honestly say, gosh do I miss it,” he said. “It was part of my life and it will be part of my life again. I miss it a great deal.” He said riding the T is key to avoid a return to a congested and polluting transportation system. “This is the way to go because our future depends on it.”