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Auto traffic and MBTA ridership are down as coronavirus fear spreads

Commuting in the age of coronavirus is a breeze. Is it safe?

Passengers rode the Red Line at South Station on Wednesday.
Passengers rode the Red Line at South Station on Wednesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

It’s a thought in the back of the minds of many commuters amid the Covid-19 outbreak: Is it safe to get on a crowded subway or bus, crammed cheek-by-jowl, and grab a handrail or a strap when who knows what’s on them?

For now, public health experts say yes — as long as you wash your hands afterward.

And in some cases, it may be less of an issue, because some MBTA service has been uncrowded this week, giving riders unexpected breathing room.

“Ever since Monday, I’m noticing a lot less traffic,” said Nancy Sullivan of Somerville. “My assumption is more people are driving and don’t want to be in crowds . . . Or maybe more people are working from home if they’re able to.”

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Same, too, for some of the state’s highways. The Department of Transportation said there were significant changes in travel times on some major roadways this week.

“It usually takes an hour, but these days it takes only 30 minutes or so,” said Hari Konnat, who rides a bus into the city most days. Still, he said, “I hope it [the outbreak] ends soon.”

Konnat and other commuters interviewed Wednesday said they were not particularly worried about catching the virus on public transit. But many riders appeared to be heeding the calls to work at home or were considering other ways to get into the office.

Some public health experts have recommended avoiding transit, if possible, at least during rush hour. Commuters should stay clear of "any situation where you’re enclosed in a tight space with many other people and there’s not really the possibility of disinfecting surfaces that have been touched by lots of people in the community,” Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Globe.

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But Todd Ellerin, an infectious disease specialist at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, said most riders are likely to emerge from their commutes “unscathed.” It’s crucial, he said, that people wash their hands; the metal poles and bars passengers grab may be the kind of hard surface where the virus is easily transferred. (Covid-19 is thought to be less easily transmitted from soft surfaces.)

“If I’m holding the pole right before you and I have Covid-19 and sneeze into my hands, rub them together, and hold the pole," Ellerin said, "I think there is a real risk for the next person who touches that a few seconds later.”

Ellerin strongly recommended against wearing gloves for protection while grabbing a pole, because it can instill a false sense of security, as the virus may still spread while removing the glove. However, riders may want to carry hand sanitizer as they travel, he said.

While he thinks the T is safe for most riders, there is probably some benefit to a portion of the riders staying off the trains, reducing the crowding and slowing the coronavirus’s spread.

Tommy Vitolo, a state representative from Brookline who is typically a big advocate for public transit, suggested on Twitter that some commuters could shift to biking or walking for “less time in a close crowd.”

In New York, elected officials have recommended that riders at least spread out. “If you see a packed train car, let it go by. Wait for the next train. Same if you’re taking a bus,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

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In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker didn’t go quite that far. On Tuesday, he recommended that those most vulnerable to the virus — older people and riders with underlying health conditions — avoid all crowds, including those on public transportation.

But he noted that many people depend on public transit to get around. So, he reiterated that the MBTA has increased its cleaning, disinfecting vehicles nightly and wiping down commonly used surfaces in stations every four hours.

The MBTA has also said it would install hand sanitizing dispensers in stations. Spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T has ordered the dispensers but is still awaiting a delivery and installation schedule from the vendor.

“As I am sure you are well aware, there is extraordinary demand for this product right now,” Pesaturo said.

There has been a decline in subway station entries of about 3 percent last week, the T said, compared to a typical March day in 2019.

The roads are also less crowded than normal, according to state data. On Tuesday, for example, rush-hour travel times on parts of Interstate 93 had decreased by a third or more, and an 8 a.m. drive on the Massachusetts Turnpike between the I-495 junction and the Allston Interchange was cut in half, compared to March 2019.

“If you look at today’s morning rush hour, usually people spend 50 percent extra time in traffic congestion," Gijs Peters, a data scientist at TomTom, said of the GPS company’s own data, which also showed less congestion. "Today, it was only 33 percent.”

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That, of course, means there’s still some traffic — and that’s true on the T, too. Orange Line rider Melissa Ramos said that while she has seen fewer crowds this week, her boyfriend had told her that trains were still as crowded as normal around 7 a.m.

“I think people who have to work earlier tend to be people of color and people in low-wage jobs, and that means they still have to go to work while people in different types of professional settings can stay home,” she theorized.

Passenger traffic is also down at Logan International Airport, where officials reported a 13.2-percent reduction in security check-ins the first week of March, compared to a year earlier. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft are not allowed to charge surge prices during a state of emergency, which Baker declared Tuesday.

This week’s commutes could provide fodder for how to best address regional traffic congestion. The Baker administration has suggested that more telecommuting is a potential solution, and the governor has pushed for a tax credit to encourage working remotely, though House lawmakers did not include it in a recent transportation package.

Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said he’d prefer using tolls to cut down on congestion. In any case, he said, a pandemic isn’t the answer.

“We need a recognition from state leaders that there are ways to fix this [traffic] problem that sustain and grow the economy, and do not require massive disruptions in people’s lives like Covid-19,” he said.

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Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.