A Tale of Two Cities: Transit Hygiene and Operations in Hong Kong and Toronto

For many Torontonians who have visited or even grew up in Hong Kong, public transit is a fantastic conversation starter. A very standard characteristic difference is the sterile looking matte finished aluminum seats compared to Toronto’s red corduroy-like upholstery. After a winter’s boisterous flu season and a summer’s hot car experience, the red fades into a different shade of history.

As of the 2nd of June 2020, Hong Kong had confirmed 1,100 cases of Covid19, over 1,042 recoveries, and only 3 new cases after closing transportation routes from Shenzhen and Macao to Hong Kong in February. While Toronto remains combating the 11,835 cases as of June 3rd. Despite the Toronto Transit Commission ridership going down by 86%, Toronto is still facing the crippling effects of Covid19.

Hong Kong’s population is approximately 1.3 million more than Toronto’s population with a higher population density and stronger reliance on public transportation. But how did Hong Kong’s public Mass Transit Railway (MTR) respond to the virus compared to the TTC?

The Hong Kong MTR had a bit of a head start in comparison to TTC. In late December, Hong Kong authorities received news from their Northern neighbour that 81 people had died from the new virus and immediately carried out hygiene measures in January for all stations, rail-car interiors, elevators, escalators, and ticket booths to be cleaned and disinfected every 2 hours. Reliving the traumatic 2003 SARS nightmare, civilian populations also took on the role of self-isolation, sanitizing, and glove and mask-wearing despite WHO not advising masks. In addition, the MTR immediately equipped all staff with surgical masks and replaced 93 station’s air-condition filters. In February, the MTR corporation slowed down rail service schedules by half in response to revenue loss and deterred people from going out by suspending all non-essential lines that go to tourist destinations. On top of it all, beginning on March 11, the MTR had the privilege to deploy 20 VHP automatic cleaning robots that spray disinfectants on vacant aluminum seats in fears of risking staff members. By comparison, Ontario was not in a state of emergency until March 17th while the TTC had made immediate hygiene measures as of March 3rd by cleaning and disinfecting. 

Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIH Study, and New England Journal of Medicine have stated that depending on temperature and humidity, Coronavirus can survive underneath soft porous surfaces for several hours and even days on plastic surfaces. Toronto has taken extra precautions to spray anti-microbial sprays onto fabric seats but effectiveness is scientifically undetermined and face masks are still optional for staff members.

While Hong Kong is not yet 100% back to usual operations, the government of Ontario considers reopening public enterprises. Toronto transit agencies will also need to anticipate the frequency of commuter turnout. Perhaps high-volume transit systems such as the TTC will need to consider adopting faster response measures that Hong Kong made. Easily-sterilisable smooth surface seating isn’t necessarily the holy grail of Covid19 or public health, but will definitely be easier to clean and would be a turning point for enforcing future public hygiene norms. Hopefully this experience could serve as an opportunity for the TTC to see what leading transit agencies across the globe has responded to epidemics and pandemics. By learning from case studies like how Hong Kong responded to 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1, we can too improve our emergency protocols.

Author: Sherwin Sze-Wai Lau

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