Good practices in public transport during the COVID-19 crisis

The coronavirus affects everyone’s life. It is a unique situation both on the individual and on the social level. We must re-evaluate our habits and adapt to the new situation. Our mobility habits have also changed: since teaching is happening online and home office became dominant, both the scope of public transport users and the daily distribution of trips has also changed. All public transport stakeholders, such as the contracting authorities, the transport organizers and the service providers have to react quickly to the new situation. Acknowledging the importance and the difficulty of the subsequent tasks, the Magyar CIVINET network – with the contribution of Mobilissimus – held its first webinar on 8 April under the title Managing public transport during COVID-19. Almost fifty participants took part in the discussions representing different cities and public transport companies in Hungary and beyond. The main aim of the webinar was the exchange of experience and supporting each other in this situation.

The most important information and practices are summarized below:

Trends and recommendations

The number of public transport users dropped by 60-80 percent on average due to the pandemic. The usual peak times have shifted: change of work shifts dominate the rush hours because students do not go to school and the number of those who usually start working at 8 or 9 am has drastically decreased. Responding to the new demands, one has to find a balance between providing services, which allow the public to travel smoothly in a safe way, and not wasting capacities with attention to the costs of the contracting authority and the service provider’s costs and the decreased revenues.

However, due to the recommended distance between travellers and considering the international recommendations (e.g. by the UITP) the supply has to abundantly exceed the level of demand.

Tools of protection, minimizing contacts

There are measures which are widely applied and there are others which are only used in a few cases. Different hygienic measures belong to the former category: such as the regular disinfection of the vehicles, providing masks and disinfector to the employees, and protecting the drivers by separating them from the passengers and cancelling front-door-only boarding. There are cases where disinfection takes place several times a day, while there are cities where it happens once a day. The applied technology for disinfection varies.

Wherever possible, they try to separate the driver from the passengers with a panel, foil or cordon. The risk of infection is higher where the cab is not closed, and many contracting authorities in Europe have been ordering buses and trolleys with half-open or completely open cabs (in some cases for decades). In more and more cities one can get on the vehicle only with a mask or covered nose and mouth (in Prague since March and in Vienna since mid-April) to minimize infection.

To avoid contacts, in many cities ticket- and pass control is done “preventively” which means that controllers get on the vehicle but only to urge passengers to use tickets, the goal is not to punish them. In many cases they introduced the possibility to buy tickets on mobile phones, which cannot be considered as electronic ticketing system, but makes access easier.

Positioning supply

Frequent supply is attractive, but it can result in unnecessary travelling and it is not cost-efficient. The situation is paradox, as attractive public transport is a basic principle of sustainable mobility, but during this pandemic the considerations are different. On the other hand, infrequent supply based on not well-thought timetable modifications is dangerous, because it can result in high number of passengers on the vehicles, especially around work shifts. Therefore, the timetable has to be adjusted to the current demand, while possibly not exceeding the level of utilisation of around 30 percent, so that the recommended distance between passengers can be kept. The applied ratio differs city by city and in some cases, they changed the timetable in more phases. There are timetables which resemble most to that of the summertime, in other cases it is taken from Saturday or Sunday timetables with planned and operative increases of frequency (the so-called “weekend +” timetable). For example, in Ostrava, Czech Republic there are higher frequencies in the morning and late afternoon, and lower in the evening compared to the weekend level of service. However, the constant monitoring and finetuning is important everywhere. The utilisation can be regulated by maximizing the number of passengers if the conditions are given (e.g. Brussels and Shenzen).

Railways may help passengers to travel safely with optimising their seat reservation system. For example, the Regio Jet, a Czech private company is offering special tickets and guarantees “quarantine cabins”, while on the bus they give out seats to keep the 1.5 metres distance.

Income and discounts/special offers

The loss in incomes due to the reduced ticket and pass sales and the uncertainty about the end of the pandemic are two general problems. In several cities there are discounts which allow health workers (and social workers) to travel for free (see Budapest or for a symbolic amount in Kecskemét). In some other cases free bus services were launched for health workers (e.g. Madrid, Ile-de-France).

Beyond public transport

Lower utilisation of public transport is only one dimension of urban mobility. Individual motorised transport, cycling and micromobility are also going through changes. One of the most often highlighted change is the increase in bike users (although there are cities where they experience the opposite, e.g. in Vienna). This can be supported by newly designated or expanded bike lanes (e.g. Budapest, Berlin and Bogota), at least temporarily. Bike sharing companies also weighed in: they offered discounts to lure in potential users (see Budapest and Berlin) and in many places – following the public transport trends – their services were offered for free for health workers (see Berlin, New York, Glasgow, Bogota, London, Ile de France). Regarding e-scooters, the opinions differ: while Lime and Bird completely suspended their operation, some other companies still promote their use while putting emphasis on the importance of disinfection (e.g. Spin).

Concerning individual motorised transport, free parking and the suspension of the congestion charge and the (Ultra) Low Emission Zones were the most frequently used tools. In some cases free parking is only offered for health workers (England, France and at the beginning Budapest), in other cases it is for all car users (e.g. Lisbon, Hungary). The other side of the coin is when the city takes some space from traffic lanes or closes roads to traffic to help pedestrians keep the 1.5 metres distance while walking (see some initiatives from New York, Vancouver and Toronto). A more moderate version is when certain streets are designated pedestrian-friendly where they have priority/have become walking streets with priority given to pedestrians (see Vienna).

What is next?

So far, we cannot see how coronavirus will affect public transport on the long term. There is a possibility that trust will decrease as long as the risk of infection does not reach zero. All this will change the positioning of public transport in relation to other modes. Therefore, we will need solutions which rebuild trust, and guarantee the passengers’ health safety. This requires intervention not only in public transport, but also in individual motorised transport, cycling, and other micromobility solutions with regulations, incentives and mobility packages that can effectively help passengers to choose the sustainable modes of mobility.

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