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Safe Travels and Operation Respect

Keeping our customers and employees safe during COVID-19

Masks are encouraged but optional on public transit

As of September 7, 2022, masks are now encouraged, but optional, on public transit.

The challenge

In mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down the New York metropolitan region as non-essential businesses closed and many office workers began working from home. Midtown Manhattan, the nation's largest central business district, became desolate. Concerts, festivals, and sporting events were cancelled and the City's famed nightlife and restaurant scenes disappeared. Ridership on NYC’s subways and buses plummeted to less than 10% of the pre-pandemic volume of 5.8 million daily riders.

But while New York had paused, the MTA didn't. We maintained nearly-normal levels of train and bus service so that essential workers could get to their jobs at critical services and businesses. By keeping transit service levels high, we also ensured that those still riding with us had more room for social distancing on trains and buses and mostly normal commute times.

As New York and the world struggled to understand and respond to the pandemic, the need for effective and accessible communications from public institutions like the MTA was critical.

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Safe Travels and Operation Respect Campaign Overview

An overview of the Safe Travels and Operation Respect campaign

The campaign

We initiated our Safe Travels and Operation Respect campaigns to educate riders on the importance of mask-wearing and other safe riding practices.

From the outset, the MTA in-house creative team knew that even though the pandemic was scary, our communications didn't have to be. We wanted our campaign to feel like advice from a fellow New Yorker: honest, direct, concise, and even a little playful at times. In other words, just like how a New Yorker would face down immense challenges.

Soon after launch, the Safe Travels and Operation Respect multichannel campaigns became ubiquitous across the MTA's vast transportation network. The highly visible yellow and black campaign visuals can be seen on digital signs, floor decals, posters, subway and bus advertising cards, merchandise, and social media. If you're riding the MTA or following us on social media, you can't miss it.

A man standing on a social distance floor marking
Photograph of a floor decal with sneaker footprints
Photograph of a child standing next to a floor decal
Photograph of a storefront with the "how to wear a mask" message
Photograph of digital ad of a flowchart indicating who should be riding
Photograph of Safe Travels messages in a subway car
Photograph of a subway conductor near a Train Crew decal
Photograph of a banner in a subway station
An illustration of Cupid wearing a mask
An illustration of Presidents Washington and Lincoln wearing masks

Our strategy

We wanted to:

  • Research and understand key friction points preventing customers from returning to use of public transit.
  • Appease those concerns with highly visible efforts both inside and outside of our transit system, to break through in NYC’s highly competitive media market.
  • Execute a multi-pronged effort, including both multi-layered communications and in-transit activations, to reinforce all that we are doing to make the transit system as spotless and safe as possible
  • Facilitate the wearing of masks and use of proper hygiene
  • Remain completely transparent with frequent customers and media outreach, as well as easily accessible data about ridership. 

Research and development

In developing the campaign, we used several research methods, including:

  1. Sampling of media reporting. This revealed that speculation and misinformation promoted an unproven correlation between the transit systems and the spread of COVID-19.  
  2. Canvassing of transit systems of similar size in international cities, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Tokyo. This invariably demonstrated that crowded subways in such cities were not causing a spread of the coronavirus. Widespread mask use is the common thread as subway ridership rebounded in other cities around the world without causing a spike in infections.  For example, ridership on Berlin’s subway, the U-Bahn, has already reached 50% of its pre-pandemic levels after falling by 75% in March. The city has recorded 6,800 COVID-19 infections, a fraction of the 205,000 seen in New York, but hasn’t seen a spike.
  3. Intercept surveys of more than 15,000 subway and bus riders between July 13 and 16, 2020. These made clear that providing the level of confidence necessary to resume using the transit system required:
    • Daily deep-cleaning of all subways, buses, trains and stations
    • Consistent and proper wearing of masks by ALL passengers
    • Proper social distancing
  4. CRM reports monitoring the volume of COVID-related calls/emails/social media posts consistently show wearing of masks to be the No. 1 concern.
Photograph of an subway ad featuring a illustrated person wearing a mask
Photograph of digital ad playing at a subway entrance

Effectiveness and results: Did the campaign work?

Mask compliance increased

The Safe Travels campaign has made great progress toward achieving its goal of 100% mask compliance. Wearing masks while in transit is at an all-time high compared to when the campaign launched in July 2020:

  • On subways, mask use is up to 95%, with proper mask use up 21%.
  • On buses, mask use is up to 97%, with proper mask use up 4%.

Valuable media mentions

The campaign earned media mentions in many New York metro media outlets, including CNN, NBC-TV, Staten Island Live, Gothamist, QNS.com, LI City Post, and Canarsie Courier.

Inspiring others

Surprisingly, the ideas and images of Safe Travels also found their way far beyond the MTA system. The campaign was shared globally, inspiring others in both public and private sectors to create similar designs and ideas. Our monthly Mask Force mask giveaways on MTA trains and buses also led other transit agencies to start their own mask distribution events.


The Safe Travels campaign is a 2021 PRWeek US Awards finalist in the PRWeek Best in Public Service 2021 Shortlist category.

Photograph of two Mask Force volunteers in a subway car