The COVID-19 lockdowns have put public transport across the world in a state of crisis. Cities affected by the pandemic are nearly deserted, with little to no cars seen on the streets. While this is a major blow to our economy, experts say that this offers an opportunity to reshape transit systems and revive cities—which can potentially ward off infectious diseases and some chronic illnesses.
Yingling Fan, an urban planner at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, said that strategic investment, creative thinking, and new technologies could eventually make people feel safe enough to ride public transport. This crisis could even open up possibilities for making transit systems more inviting. But, experts say that there’s no assurance that the daily commute can go back to the way it was.
“Transportation history is full of stories where something that was done temporarily turned out to be permanent, because people didn't want to go back,” Jarrett Walker, an international transit consultant and author of “Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives,” said.
Changes in Daily Commute
It wasn’t too long ago that it was normal to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a packed bus or train. But ever since the pandemic started, all of us have had to stay at home or at least maintain social distancing when going out. Transportation officials have already seen dramatic changes such as reduced ridership on public transit. In the US, Metro says rail ridership decreased by 95%. Virginia, for instance, reported a 40% to 60% traffic reduction on its highways.
According to WAMU, a public news/talk station located at Washington, D.C., Metro closed 19 stations in the wake of the coronavirus. Before the pandemic, about 980,000 trips were taken on an average weekday. Now, only 130,000 to 150,000 trips happen a day on Metrorail and bus combined. Authorities say that most trips are taken by essential government workers, hospital staff, grocery and pharmacy employees, and more.
Jeff Marootian, the director of the District Department of Transportation, said that it’s painful to tell people not to ride. “Before the health crisis, we saw big gains in WMATA rail ridership and the beginning of a real turn around the story on the bus with new energy around bus infrastructure in particular. It has been tough to tell people ‘Don’t use Metro’ having spent so much time focusing on building the case for why people should ride Metro,” Marootian said.
The same scenarios are also seen in many major cities across the world. Statista, a German online portal for statistics, reported that activities at transit stations in Vienna on May 9, 2020 were down by 29% compared with the 'usual activity' during the five weeks between January 3 and February 6, 2020. The measures taken to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic caused this reduction in mobility, which will decrease transmission rates.
A recent survey also found that 75% of respondents in five European and three Asian countries affected by COVID-19 reported avoiding public transportation as a precaution. Such findings aren’t new since an outbreak like this drastically affects daily transportation. A 2014 analysis, for instance, pointed to a 50% decrease in daily ridership for Taiwan’s underground transit system during the peak of the epidemic there in March 2003.
A study conducted by UK researchers during the 2008-2009 influenza season revealed that those who rode buses or trams were nearly six times as likely as non-riders to seek health care for an acute respiratory illness. Some people might think that riding private vehicles would be the solution, but experts say it’s equally dangerous. Lawrence Frank, a transportation and public health expert at the University of British Columbia, said that this only increases the risk for chronic illnesses.
According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, a 2004 study revealed that every extra hour that people spend in a car each day increases their risk for obesity by 6%. Obesity, in turn, is a predictor of diabetes and heart disease—both of which increase a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19 complications.
“We want fewer people to have those preconditions, so that if a pandemic hits if they get exposed to it, they will survive it. The real question is: How do you build a future that addresses both chronic and infectious disease?” Frank said.
Public Transit Exposed Inequalities in Cities Amid the Pandemic
The drastic changes in public commute due to the coronavirus pandemic could potentially result in long-term shifts in transportation patterns. According to Eno Trans, many jobs might have to completely shift to telecommuting. Some experts believe that many employers will choose to offer flexible work arrangements on a regular basis.
While this can be an opportunity to evaluate the current public transport system across the globe, the pandemic has also exposed existing inequalities in many cities. Many people rely on public transport to reach their destination, whether it’s for work, emergency hospital visits, or other urgent matters. They are the people who depend on it more than others. Doug Johnson, the transportation planning manager at the San Francisco Planning Department, said these riders are often lower-income, minority groups who may not own cars and who rely on transit for access to opportunities like jobs and schools.
The latest US Census data shows that the rates of US commuters using public transportation are much higher for minority groups. Findings show that 1 in 6 Among African American and Asian workers in large cities use public transit—the same people disproportionately affected by the current pandemic. Recent reports revealed that over half of coronavirus cases in the US and nearly 60% of deaths are predominantly black people. The risk of being infected is also higher for them due to socioeconomic factors like employment, access to health insurance, and medical care.
According to the Washington Post, a major American daily newspaper published in Washington, D.C., many of them hold essential jobs that require them to continue to commute to work and come into contact with others. “They still have to take the bus because they didn’t have another way to get to their service jobs or the hospital or to the grocery store. [They] don’t have other options as ways to get around,” Sean Kennedy, transit planning manager at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said.
Thus, experts say that if governments take this opportunity to fix problems in our public transport, they should do so by also considering existing inequalities in our society.