The new normal for public transport

India’s continued lockdown to control the spread of Covid-19 had forced 1.3 billion people to stay at home and brought public transport services to a standstill. Even before the lockdown, people preferred to stay at home and especially avoided public transport to practise social distancing. This is evident from the ridership figures of metro transportation systems in various cities, as shown in the table, Slow ride. A similar impact can be seen across a majority of the public transportation systems across the world.

Transport systems in the pre-Covid world were designed based on the number of commuters transported conveniently and safely. This will need to be redefined in an ideal post Covid-19 scenario. The government and regulators will need to think about a host of interventions that can be taken to protect three major stakeholders – staff, passengers and operating agencies/authorities. Several considerations of public health and safety will help in gaining the confidence of public transport users. It might result in travel becoming tedious, lengthier and costlier, but it will be much safer. This will need development of a new framework for operating public transport, and customers, regulators and operators should come together to design new systems of safety without losing sight of efficiency, which public transport systems are known for. This framework should save both time and cost.

To ensure the staff’s safety in the post-lockdown world, they should be given adequate protection gear like gloves, masks and santitisers. Also, health check-ups should be conducted regularly and they should be provided with good support infrastructure like well-managed cafeterias and canteens, and hygienic washrooms for drivers and staff. Further, the staff should also be trained well around ways to disinfect facilities and surfaces. They also need to be trained to communicate effectively with passengers and respond to their health and safety concerns.

Similar initiatives have been taken in Wuhan when their bus services resumed after nine weeks of lockdown. A safety supervisor was on each bus along with the driver to ensure that all passengers scan a QR code using their mobile phones to declare their health status before boarding. The bus drivers and safety supervisors also follow several safety measures – they are screened for fever every day. Not only do they wear masks and gloves during the trip, they also keep the vehicles well ventilated and sanitise them after each trip.

 

Public transport authorities must look at all three stages – before the travel, during travel and after travel to ensure a safe and secure travel experience for its users. They must ensure proper sanitisation and more accurate thermal scanning before entry in all modes of transport as a norm. The space efficiencies that public transport have been known will need to be reconfigured as per social distancing norms. To aid contract tracing, a detailed passenger information will be required. Health screening areas will become the new norm at airports and international travelers might have to submit proof of their health and travel history.

Technology must be implemented to enable a safe and secure travel experience. The entry tickets of public transport must be enabled with QR code technology that will enable the authorities to maintain records of passengers. They must also invest in a detailed passenger information management system to ensure that the data is secure.

Shanghai’s public transport system has a QR code to allow passengers to declare their health condition and ask for help while commuting, so that health authorities can contact them timely and take necessary measures.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made social distancing the new norm. Keeping this in mind, public transport will need to reduce utilisation of assets to achieve the desired social distancing norms. This calls for larger fleets. As an illustration, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has requested airline and airport authorities to take extensive measures to maintain social distancing and has also directed airlines to keep the middle seat empty to avoid close contact between fliers.

The government should popularise non-motorised transport like walking and cycling to ensure safer transport.

With the decline in ridership, there is significant loss in fare and non-fare revenue for transport system operators. Implementing these health safety measures also results in additional costs for the transport authorities. Partners associated with the transport systems have already requested for reduction in fixed charges to manage cash flows at their end.

As per the contractual condition in most agreements, the operator/concessionaire may request concessions for periods when there is no collection of fares.

The recent Covid-19 impact has raised challenges for the government’s fiscal prudence and donor projects linked to infrastructure and transport may not be given as much priority as health care and essential services linked projects. In India, states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which are highly urbanised, will face challenges linked to Covid-19 at a much higher scale than other locations, and entities like Kochi Metro and TNSRTC may wish to adopt these technologies sooner rather than later. Hence, the government will have to position these projects as ones that positively impact the health of passengers and improve the utilisation of public transport assets.

Overall, a concerted effort by the government, transport authorities, operators and the people will together contribute to our emerging stronger from this crisis and keep cities moving in this new normal.

The author is partner, infrastructure and urban transport, PwC India


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