The public transport has been subject to a critical (but necessary) drop in usage.
The public transport has been subject to a critical (but necessary) drop in usage.
( Bild: gemeinfrei / Unsplash)

Covid-19 What now for transport in the time of COVID-19?

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrance / Jochen Schwab

With half of the human population currently living under lockdown, COVID-19 forced a new normal upon us. However, amongst the terrible harm that coronavirus is causing, there is a thread of opportunity for city transport and mobility planners across the globe.

There's not a sector of society unimpacted by COVID-19 from healthcare to tourism, restaurants, and sporting events. Mobility is also feeling the pain, and public transport has been subject to a critical (but necessary) drop in usage. On Saturday the Mayor of London announced on Twitter:
"I am grateful Londoners have listened & are staying home. But as the majority of TFL's [Transport For London' s]costs are funded through fares - down 90% - it's putting huge pressure on TfL's finances. To help safeguard vital transport services, TfL will be furloughing 7,000 staff."

They're not alone. In Vancouver, TransLink has announced nearly 1,500 layoffs and widespread cuts in response to losing $75 million every month due to reduced ridership.

More disturbingly, The Guardian reports that nearly 100 American transit workers have died from the coronavirus in the US and at least 20 bus drivers in the UK. In New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) alone,at least 50 employees have died of COVID-19, while many more have tested positive for the virus.

In a time where the very initial stirrings of life after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, what will it mean for critical public amenities like public transport? As they return to work and school requires longer commutes, how do we reduce the risk of public transport as a breeding ground for further infections? Let's take a look at what that might mean:

Buses need to be reconfigured or provide free public transport

Governments are acting in response to the death of bus drivers, reducing trips and prioritizing journeys for essential workers. Cities such as Berlin and New Jersey now require passengers to wear masks. Most limit entry to the rear door. London has made bus transport free, New Zealand is continuing free public transport. Victoria in Australia prohibits passengers from sitting on the seating close to the driver.

In a recent webinar, Transit Chief Business Officer David Block-Schachter shared data that found 45 percent of agencies have eliminated fares. He notes:

"This pandemic has really upended much of what we thought we knew in this industry. This has exposed what is really the true and the core purpose of public transit."

Passengers and drivers must wear appropriate PPE equipment due to COVID-19.
Passengers and drivers must wear appropriate PPE equipment due to COVID-19.

Passengers and drivers will need to wear appropriate PPE equipment. Buses must be retrofitted with protective barriers such as those in Chicago where Pace Suburban Buses are now secured with custom barriers to improve driver safety.

There needs to be a way for people to pay safely

While there are no reported cases of infection caused by touching money, many retail industries are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to restrict payment to cashless solutions such as mobile apps and card 'tap and go' payments. It follows that ticket inspectors are not working on the front line (as revealed in places such as Toronto), so the impetus for people to travel without paying leads to even more significant financial losses for transport providers. It will be interesting to see how the industry responds to this.

Public transport providers will rely on government subsidies

Transport providers are not only hit with the loss of revenue from fares (and yes, fines against fare invaders) but also face the added expenses of necessary disinfecting and deep cleaning. In response, the US Federal Transit Administration unveiled $25 billion in stimulus dollars for public transportation systems across the US as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. This problem is not limited to America. Further, what will it take for passengers to return to public transport, and what will that return look like?

Changes to work will lead to changes in transport

It's foreseeable that some of the changes we've seen in public transport will persist. Currently, the focus of public transport for essential service workers suggests that there's a whole cohort of people who depend on public transport who may not have been underserved pre-pandemic. For example, in San Francisco, rush hour has shifted to between 5:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. which is when shift changes are happening at hospitals and just before most grocery stores open. During the 1918 flu pandemic, New York City staggered working hours to reduce crowding on trains. The New York Times reports that "white-collar offices" were open from 8:40 to 4:30 during the outbreak, with "wholesalers" starting earlier and "non-textile manufacturers" starting later. This resulted in far fewer flu deaths than other big east-coast cities.

The Mayor of Milan Beppe Sala, has shared that the city is planning to reduce the capacity of public transport, with a maximum daily ridership of 400,000 down from the previous 1.4 million. Associated with this is a range of city promoted efforts to spread the load from staggered school opening times to providing restaurants and businesses incentives to open at different times and close later.

Incentives to travel at different times

In response to efforts to reduce crowding on public transport, transport providers could provide incentives to reduce the impact of crowding in carriages, such as reduced fares at quieter times or rewards such as vouchers from surrounding businesses.

Greater use of technology to monitor transport crowding

The Citymapper app providing user-friendly navigation suggestions for a faster, easier commute, all updated in real-time.
The Citymapper app providing user-friendly navigation suggestions for a faster, easier commute, all updated in real-time.
(Bild: Citymapper app)

The Citymapper app is available in 29 big cities around the world, providing user-friendly navigation suggestions for a faster, easier commute, all updated in real-time. Since 2015 the app has a 'where to get on the train' feature, which advises passengers which door is most appropriate depending on their destination. It's foreseeable we'll see an increase in apps of this nature for people to track the expected crowding of transport as they plan their journeys.

A CORE MaaS (COVID-19 Resilient Mobility as a Service) project is being developed by Iomob to create a platform to provide intermodal routing algorithms to allow users to select available mobility options within selected geography that optimize social distancing, as a prioritized parameter. This will enable people to choose the least crowded route.

Mobility as a Service as an integral part of the mix

While micromobility providers are currently struggling, it's foreseeable they'll need to step up as more people need to travel but seek to avoid crowding public transport. Multimodal mobility and MaaS apps that represent a range of modes of transpo

rt could provide consumers with the incentive to use scooters, bikes, and other services (providing appropriate safety needs are clear.)

With the effort to reduce crowding on public transport, it will be necessary to monitor passenger levels carefully. We could either see less transport and more frequent transport with fewer passengers. Could buses (with appropriate safeguards) be one of the solutions here? Bus-only lanes and other options such as more cycle and scooter paths could become a necessity if trains are reduced or passenger numbers restricted. Public education will be crucial as no one wants to pay for transport and be unable to board and train or risk being late to work. But it's not easy, especially as we all want to avoid another onslaught attributed to a crowded rush hour.