Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner, said that those who are feeling ill—and even those who are not—should hold off on commuting across the five boroughs. “We want to reduce the number of New Yorkers who are at risk for bad health outcomes,” she told reporters at a recent press conference. “So it’s incumbent on all of us to play our part and stay home.”
And the reasons to set foot outside are growing increasingly slim, with Mayor Bill de Blasio restricting eateries to take out and delivery, shuttering entertainment venues, and closing the public school system. But some New Yorkers are putting on gloves and a brave face as they continue to use public transportation, whether to stock up on essentials or get to and from a job that necessitates workers be physically present.
If you’re among those people—or you have to leave your house for any reason in the next few weeks—you may be wondering how can you get around safely during this time. Dr. Robyn Gershon, a professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, recommends walking above all else. But since that likely isn’t practical if you’re going beyond your neighborhood, biking is a close second, especially if you’re using your own bike.
“If you have to travel, the outdoors is a way to really dilute anything that could be around you,” says Gershon. “The sunlight is also really good because it’s a natural disinfectant.”
Last week, de Blasio encouraged commuters to “bike or walk to work if you can” to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and New Yorkers listened: According to the city’s Department of Transportation, bike traffic over its bridges has dramatically increased this month compared to the same time last year.
Citi Bike has also seen demand surge 67 percent so far this month. Those blue bikes are being kept clean by staffers who are disinfecting “high-contact surfaces,” according to the Lyft-owned company. Gershon recommends going a step further by cleaning the handlebars and seat with a bleach wipe before taking a ride.
If you’re new to a cycling commute, you’ll want to brush up on your biking basics. Transportation Alternatives spokesperson Joe Cutrufo recommends packing a change of clothes for those who have a commute that is more than a few miles. For a less sweaty ride, consider panniers attached to the bike’s rear rack instead of a backpack, and don’t forget a helmet. It’s also key to plan your route in advance (using the city’s map of bike lanes) and bake in additional time to find an available Citi Bike.
“The city’s network of protected bike lanes doesn’t reach every neighborhood, so seek out streets that have less traffic and lower speeds,” says Cutrufo. “If you’re using Citi Bike, build in some extra time in case the dock closest to your destination is full. This happens a lot, and especially now that ridership is spiking.”
Much must be done to expand and improve safe cycling infrastructure across the boroughs, but as the city grapples with a pandemic, there are immediate steps officials could take to make biking to work a possibility for more New Yorkers, according to Trans Alt. The organization recommends the city add pop-up bike lanes (like those deployed during the UN General Assembly last September), reconfigure key East River crossings for smoother traffic flow, fast-track construction of sidewalk and on-street bike parking, and expedite Citi Bike’s expansion to underserved neighborhoods.
DOT spokesperson Brian Zumhagen says the agency is looking at “using cones or movable barriers” to create temporary bike paths with space from traffic lanes, and may designate new parking for bikes on sidewalks and in pedestrian plazas. DOT is also working with Citi Bike to add more docks in Manhattan’s busiest areas.
“With the increase in ridership, we are reviewing potential measures we can take to make cycling even safer, easier and more accessible,” Zumhagen said in a statement.
Biking, of course, isn’t an option for everyone. Those with limited mobility or who simply have to travel a vast distance may have little choice but to stick to public transit. And interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg insists the MTA doesn’t plan on changing subway and bus service.
“Right now, we’re staying open for those who need us—and for those whom we all need,” Feinberg said in a statement. “That includes our medical professionals, firefighters, law enforcement personnel, child care workers, food service employees, and everyone else we need to keep New York safe and healthy. We continue to run trains and the buses so that these folks can get where they need to be.”
MTA workers are disinfecting subway cars, commuter rail, and buses daily; surfaces that customers frequently touch are being disinfected at least twice a day, says Feinberg. Still, Gershon suggests arming yourself with gloves (one-time use, rubber, winter—whatever you have available) while navigating the subway. Try to avoid touching surfaces, use your clothed arm to push into the turnstile, and hold subway poles with crook of your arm. Though with ridership plunging at major stations, straphangers may not have a problem finding a seat.
Gershon has found herself relying on bleach wipes during her travels for subway poles and railings. The moment you’re out of the subway she recommends that you use hand sanitizer (here’s how to make your own), discard any reusable gloves or wipes you used while traveling, and disinfect your phone, bag straps, and anything else you touched.
“This is certainly going to take down the viral load,” says Gershon. “It may not get it to zero but it’s taking it down, and that’s good enough for me right now.”
The same logic applies to trips made in taxis or in ride-hailing vehicles, where previous riders have likely handled seatbelts and door handles. But Gershon points to a 50-year-old lawyer in New Rochelle who infected his neighbor after a short car trip to the hospital, noting “a close, confined rebreathing of the same air within six feet of each other may not be the best thing right now.”
Gershon ultimately warns that if you can stay home you should, but if you take the necessary precautions, biking and public transit can safely move you through New York.
“We have to self-police and be generous to protect each other,” says Gershon. “The more of us that can stay away, the better it will be for the people who absolutely have to go in.”