Urban Mobility Redesign and Rethinking During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Situation Analysis

The coronavirus pandemic has shown the interlocked nature of the modern world, where what happens in cities, does not stay in cities. With around two hundred countries affected, the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19) pandemic has wrapped its tentacles around the Indian population. The Government of
India took an anticipatory step to break the spread of the virus by declaring a nationwide lockdown on the 21 st of March 2020. The lockdown, now approaching its fourth phase, has brought life to a standstill.

In such situations, the Indian public transport has been profoundly affected by this forced social distancing tool.

How has public transport been affected?

Across many countries, life as we know it has taken a hiatus. Governments have issued warnings for people to stay at home, away from crowds and infectious environments. The desertion of shared services includes public buses and trains, which has made public transport sector its first casualty. People and goods use transport for what it produces, and not just for its sake. It is a derived demand. Public transport has suffered massive revenue losses since it is typically dependent on fares and subsidies.
The Covid-19 has crippled the businesses of shared mobility firms, snowballing risks and financial pressure for the gig-economy workers, particularly the drivers.

Public transport systems have been considered a high-risk setting due to:

  • no methods to identify potentially sick people
  • a high number of people in a confined space
  • Exposure to common surfaces (handrails, ticket machines, etc.).
  • It is therefore vital to analytically identify areas of action to abate the risks for public transport staff and passengers.

Role of Public Transport

Public transport is essential to provide mobility to critical services and staff as a core function and to
allow movement of patients, medical staff and supplies in times of pandemics. Therefore, maintaining
the operation of public transport is crucial. Subsequently, public transport operators should focus their pandemic plan efforts on staff safety, and preparing to deal with the shortage of labour.
The efforts of public transport can be divided into three phases:

  • During lockdown
  • Just after lockdown
  • Resuming urban transport post lockdown

During Lockdown

Rail Based Transit
Minimize the Spread of Infection

  • Sanitization of coaches/rolling stock, station area, common areas and staff rooms
  • Provide safety gear and PPE like masks, gloves and sanitizers
  • Emergency Services
  • Enabling the transport of essential staff and healthcare supplies
  • Transportation of migrant labour back to their hometowns
  • Usage of train coaches as quarantine and treatment facilities

Bus Based Transit
Minimize the spread of infection

  • Operation at lower capacity (30-50%)
  • Passengers to board/alight from rear doors
  • Sanitization of buses, bus depots and common staff areas
  • Providing safety gear for both the passengers and bus operators
  • Transparent protective barriers placed near the driving area to protect the bus driver and passengers
  • Introducing changes in operation
  • Buses to run as per demand, and will be available only to move essential staff and supplies
  • Information sharing through apps about real-time location and number of passengers in the bus
  • Any documents from the transport authority to be approved digitally

Just after lockdown

Rail Based Transit
Minimize the spread of infection

  • Limiting the number of passengers per coach
  • No cash transactions allowed for ticket purchasing
  • Maintaining hygiene and sanitation of all common areas
  • Introducing changes in operation
  • Issuing refunds of tickets
  • Increasing the frequency of trains and metros to avoid crowding

Bus Based Transit
Minimize the spread of infection

  • Marking seats as unavailable to reduce the number of passengers
  • Only digital transactions to pay for the fare, to reduce chances of contact
  • Sanitization of buses, along with compulsory masks, gloves and other PPE for passengers and drivers
  • Demarcation at bus stops to maintain an appropriate distance between passengers and bus driver
  • Introducing changes in operation
  • Support to transport authorities in terms of relaxation of KPIs and penalties

Pedestrianization and Cycling

Minimize the spread of infection

  • Encouraging walking as a new means of public transport and creating new walking zones
  • Allowing only walking/cycling as a means of transportation within a certain radius
  • Sanitization of cycles and docking stations while providing protective measures such as gloves,
  • masks and hand sanitizers
  • Online registration for rental of cycles
  • Introducing changes in operation
  • Closure of roads for vehicles to allow only pedestrians or cyclists
  • Cycle sale and repair outlets to remain operational under essential services

Cab and ride-hailing services

Minimize the spread of infection

  • Limiting the number of passengers in a cab to 2
  • Sanitization of cabs with compulsory PPE for drivers and passengers
  • Rides restricted to passenger movement for essential services
  • Free rides for health workers and transportation of necessary supplies

Apart from these measures, disseminating information and safety guidelines for the general public is of critical importance, at all times.

Resuming Public Transport Post Lockdown

  • Maintaining thorough sanitization of all kinds of public transport
  • Ensuring communication of social distancing and hygiene guidelines while introducing modifications to ensure the safety of drivers and passengers
  • Managing a sudden surge in the rise of demand for PPE. People would be living in a mindset that the person next to them is infected.
  • Providing urban transportation to labourers and factory workers to return to their work
  • Building footpaths and cycling bi-lanes, while closing down streets for vehicular traffic to encourage pedestrianization and cycling
  • A gradual increase in the occupancy capacity of public transport
  • Renegotiate contracts to support the private sector in terms of penalties, changed working hours and staff salaries

Future of Public Transport

Social distancing measures on public transport will have to be maintained even after the COVID-19 lockdown measures are revoked, and passenger traffic returns. The fundamental basis of transportation will be questioned. People preferably would not want to travel. If they do move, they would want it to be secure and affordable.

Post-COVID-19, behaviour will likely change. A vast number of people will try to move away from public transport and will choose safer substitutes in a similar price range, and people who can pay for might upgrade their choice of public transport, or may even buy. Given rules regarding social distancing and safety, consumers would prefer self-drive two-wheelers, along with long-term subscriptions and rentals, and move out of shared transport. As Mr E Sreedharan rightly said, the metro is a social responsibility.

It will have to resume operations after the lockdown. But to make the commute safer for people, Delhi Metro will have to enhance
capacity six times, while Mumbai trains will have to boost services 14-16 times. Cycling, apart from being a healthy and sustainable mode of transport, is a good way to relieve the burden on public transport systems.

There should be a conscious effort to bring about a change from
private car usage, including ride-hailing and cabs to cycling but also walking to safeguard the health of people during their day to day life.

How to support public transport for economic recovery

After the COVID-19 circuit breaker, public transport is bound to face limited demand. It will need support to boost its quality of service, to restore passenger confidence about its safety.

  1. Reconsidering the revenue model:

    The centre and state governments may need to infuse capital to deliver safe and affordable public transport to ensure that systems do not buckle under once the travel demand surges. This will help maintain vital jobs for workers in a stressed economy. Funding public transport only through fare revenue, with added public funds to close the gap, might not always be a sustainable solution, especially in times like these. Innovative approaches revenue models should be explored, such as parking management and congestion pricing. This will help increase revenue and promote walking and cycling.
  2. Invest in Cycling and Pedestrianization Infrastructure:

    Cycling and walking should be encouraged to post the lockdown, considering safety issues. These modes of transport are inexpensive, boost healthy lifestyles, and can prove essential in providing first and last-mile connectivity to public transport. Investments into building exclusive cycling and walking paths can reduce the chances for road accidents as well. Closure of streets for vehicles to allow for only cycling and pedestrianization can further this cause.
  3. Gather learnings for the future:

    Urban planning is often fractured and incoherent, which results in unnecessary pressure on public transport. It’s time to improve coordination down to the city level, to ensure that stranded people, patients, health workers and essential supplies reach their destinations safely. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the interconnected nature of the modern world, where what happens in cities, does not stay in cities. Yet urban planning often remains fractured and uncoordinated,with significant consequences for public transport.

Conclusion

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
-Rahm Emanuel

The ability to transform the public transport to move stranded people, patients, health workers and supplies, to the extent of converting even the most traditional forms of mobility into quarantine facilities demonstrates its capacity and scope to improve manifolds. Its time we learnt lessons from this pandemic, to improve our mobility options, and cultivate innovation. Digital payments, increasing automation, improving the service levels of public transport while focusing on customers will go a long way in building a safe and sustainable urban mobility design.

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