The novel coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global public transport system and made it a high-risk environment. Urban administrations are concerned about the major role of public transit in this global health emergency.  In fact, students pursuing a bachelor of urban planning or masters of urban planning degrees are now being introduced to the topic of Pandemic Planning and Response for Public Transportation.

In the current global health crisis, social distancing is being strictly exercised by everyone. Due to the contagious nature of the pandemic, public transport systems have been shut down as they tend to contain a large number of people in confined spaces. Public transportation utilities also establish multiple points of contact for people using these services.

Even so, there is no denying that public transport is an important service for people. It provides mobility even in times of pandemics, particularly to access health care facilities. Hence, public transport operators are now figuring out how to maintain their operations during pandemics.

Public Transportation Challenges During A Pandemic

The urban planning of cities always considers public transportation as a top priority because people of all income groups use these transportation services. In India, more than 60% of the total population depends on public transport systems for their daily commute and livelihood. Transportation and urban planning managers in populous cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai believe that public transport services are primarily used by lower-income or minority groups. People who cannot afford to own cars have to rely on public transit such as buses and local trains for accessing jobs, schools, and other common places. Hence, even in the face of a growing pandemic, there is no effective alternative for public transportation in India.

One of the major challenges for public transportation during pandemics is that almost 90% of public transit commuters cannot work from home as their jobs cannot be executed remotely. In addition to this, public transport employees are also unable to fulfil their duties from home. Their work is completed only on-site. Hence, a pandemic also causes high unemployment in the public transportation sector and the associated industrial verticals. Since March, millions of public transport employees across India have lost their source of income due to the coronavirus pandemic.

What is the Future of Urban Transportation Post-Coronavirus?

Experts predict that in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, public transport systems will resume by maintaining rigorous social distancing and thorough cleanliness. Metros and local trains will run at reduced capacities, while cabs and buses will ferry limited passengers. Cashless ticketing can help public transport services in collecting fares without risking the lives of operators, drivers, and passengers.

The real challenges will arise when the costs of these services are reduced. Public transit agencies are losing billions of dollars across the world. This financial vulnerability is getting worse with the decreased ridership across different public transportation systems.

People are likely to stay at home and manage their livelihood from their savings. Hence, the demand for public transport is plunging drastically. People who can execute their professional, technical, and scientific services from home would not prefer commuting through buses or cabs.

However, public transport utilities would be majorly used by retail, food service, and healthcare workers. These essential workers must do their jobs in person. Several benefits of public transportation are being overlooked during this pandemic. While the focus is concentrated on contagion risks, public transit also poses a threat similar to shared-vehicle travel. Public transit operators can create an equitable and efficient transportation system which makes the travel as safe as possible.

Here are a few recommendations for bolstering public transport during pandemics:

  • Implement safety strategies such as assembling fact sheets for transit users, health professionals, local businesses, operators, passengers, and environmentalists
  • Provide health safety resources for passengers, from free-to-user hand sanitizers to low-cost face masks
  • Focus on giving equal consideration for active as well as passive public transportation, which involves improving the conditions for walking and encouraging public transit travel through bicycling
  • Offer fare-free transit and automated payment systems
  • Promote safety regulations and warnings in a balanced way
  • Propose and build dedicated bus lanes and improve the air quality by deploying low-cost hybrid buses
  • Celebrate the efforts of transit operators and consider them as heroes and role models of the country

While public transit faces several challenges and criticisms, it important to not exaggerate the contagion fears. Urban planners should ensure that people involved in public transportation get accurate and complete information about the risks as well as the benefits of transit during pandemics.