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Public transportation provides worldwide have seen a sharp decile in travelers in the past week due to the speed of the coronavirus COVID-19.
Public transportation provides worldwide have seen a sharp decile in travelers in the past week due to the speed of the coronavirus COVID-19.
( Source: Unsplash)

Covid-19 What is the impact of Covid-19 on the public transport sector?

| Author/ Editor: Cate Lawrence / Erika Granath

The escalation of Covid-19 has changed our cities as people struggle to avoid infection and keep their friends and families safe by staying at home. Transport providers must cope with this new normal and its impact is wide-reaching from staffing to cleaning and timetabling. Already transport providers are reporting the financial impact of stay at home life—what will this mean in the incoming months?

It's been said that if you want to get a feel for the diversity of humanity, take a ride on busy public transport. You'll experience everything from people taking business calls. Kids watching videos on iPads and couples juggling shopping to napping students, buskers, people traveling to their third shift, and everything in between. This moving mass of humanity has been sorely tested by the recent outbreak of the coronavirus Covid-19, where over the last few days, cities have been grappling with the issue of containing residents to reduce the spread of the virus and still provide services to the city.

The response has varied in different locations, depending on the progression of the virus and the speed of transmission. Consistent advice includes frequent handwashing—however, this is not so easy when there often are no hygiene facilities either on trains or their stations. Authorities are also urging all people to practice "social distancing" measures—equally difficult on crowded peak hour transport.

Transport is reduced

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority MTA puts it well:

"If you can stay home, do it. ‪We're here to get nurses, doctors, child care workers, first responders, transit workers, and anyone else who needs us where they need to go."

Fortunately for many commuters, the opportunity to work from home has reduced their need for public transport. In Washington, the Metro reports of a nearly 80 percent drop in transport users, with 140,000 trips on Tuesday compared to 663,000 trips on the same Tuesday last year. In San Francisco, BART released a press release thices week claiming significant declines in ridership with immediate loss of fare and parking revenues as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ridership data shows BART lost 70 percent of its riders on Monday, and initial data for Tuesday's commute shows an 85 percent decline.

In Berlin, some less frequented transport lines are closed, and all transport is reduced to 10-minute intervals.London has switched to a weekend timetable for the next few weekdays and may reduce transport frequency further. Other cities will likely follow suit.

In Hong Kong, a passenger service video shares the use of disinfection points at stations and advises the use of masks
In Hong Kong, a passenger service video shares the use of disinfection points at stations and advises the use of masks
(Source: BZgA)

All transport providers are taking steps to prevent the virus from spreading. In Germany and Switzerland, bus passengers can only board using the back entrance to avoid infecting the driver. In Israel, the use of cash in public transport is banned as an effort to reduce the coronavirus spread. In Hong Kong, a passenger service video shares the use of disinfection points at stations and advises the use of masks. Hong Kong's MTR has also deployed an automated Vapourised Hydrogen Peroxide Robot to deep clean and decontaminate trains and stations. The MTA in New York is disinfecting stations and high-touch surfaces—like turnstiles, ticket machines, and handrails—twice a day, with the entire active service fleet being covered every 72 hours.

Perhaps one of the most insidious (but unsurprising) examples of transport restrictions is in China, where citizens are required to obtain a public health QR code via WeChat by entering their name, national identity number, and registering with facial recognition. The code is shown at checkpoints, including entries to train stations with temperatures checked. Those with a green code can move freely. Those with yellow or red codes must quarantine themselves or undergo medical supervision. Over 200 cities in China are using the system.

The economic impact will be profound on the public transport industry

What's clear is that the financial impact of the Covid-19 will be far-reaching in most industries, and public transport is no exception. The result will extend from the money generated by ticket sales and parking, to vending machines and transport fines. The effect on employees and peripheral businesses, such as shops and cafes, will also be considerable. Transport for London predicts that the financial implications of the coronavirus could be up to £500m.

San Fransisco's BART has disclosed that they are experiencing an immediate loss of fare and parking revenues of approximately $37M per month (at 85 percent ridership decline)
San Fransisco's BART has disclosed that they are experiencing an immediate loss of fare and parking revenues of approximately $37M per month (at 85 percent ridership decline)
(Source: BART)

Already San Fransisco's BART has disclosed that they are experiencing an immediate loss of fare and parking revenues of approximately $37M per month (at 85 percent ridership decline). They note that "This revenue loss is expected to worsen and, in the event of a full-service shutdown, could reach or exceed $44M per month." In the U.S. Federal emergency legislation was released this week with $500M for Covid-19 response funding, and BART has requested a direct allocation of $55M.

It's a loss that has stretched beyond public transport. Deutsche Welle reports that the German taxi industry is reporting revenue losses of up to 40 percent and is responding by offering discounts to people with annual or monthly public transport passes.

Public transport safety tips during corona

There are a number of steps that transport providers recommend passengers undertake to reduce their risk of infection:

  • Avoid transport if coughing or if already health comprised
  • Sit alone
  • Avoid touching anything (including handrails and straps)
  • Wash hands after journey
  • If you choose to wear masks or gloves, change frequently
  • Commute during non-peak times
  • Consider alternative modes of transport such as walking, and e-bikes (cleaning the handlebars before use)