Don’t avoid public transport – this is our opportunity to reinvent it
Social distancing and public transport don’t sit well together. Before the pandemic, in excess of 10 million journeys were taken on the London underground and bus network every day. More than 9,000 buses and 543 tube trains operated at peak times. The numbers speak for themselves – we can’t just avoid public transport as the government has advised, and expect our cities to recover. This is the opportunity for public transport to reinvent itself.
Based on capacity restrictions, social distancing measures can only be applied safely if we see a maximum of 10-20% returning to public transport. Like every major city across the world, it is the backbone for how we commute – but once restrictions slowly begin to lift and companies start to re-open, how can employees be expected to commute to their offices safely?
The car – which provides less exposure and more convenience – is a short term fix on the long road to a new normal. But, it’s not the answer, as the same amount of people can move four times quicker by bus or tram. Creating irreversible habits now is also the last thing needed in our efforts towards clearer roads and cleaner air. Never mind the fact that many don’t have access to cars, where public transport has been their lifeline and brought much-needed inclusivity and job opportunities.
Measures encouraging us to walk, cycle and use e-scooters are fantastic. The UK government announced a £2bn package to rapidly boost walking and cycling. Similar initiatives in Milan and Berlin have been driving home the same message. Thousands of journeys can be replaced by active, healthy commutes – but it’s not the silver bullet. Cycling in spring is somewhat different to the wet and windiness of winter, so what is the plan for the ‘new normal’ we are experiencing – will a change in season also bring a change in the services we need?
Together with cycling and walking, we need a safe and fully operational public transport system to recover. If policymakers are decisive, it’s possible to make people feel confident in travelling on buses and trains again and improve the way we commute for good.
First, we need to tear up our old assumptions about demand and fare income. Never will we commute in the same way again, certainly not until there is a vaccine. Companies like Optibus can help cities and operators to dynamically predict how we will move and how our transport networks can adapt to the new normal.
Next, we must embrace new and flexible business models, working closely with private sector operators. Companies like Via can replace loss-making fixed bus routes with flexible, demand-responsive services. Our company, Zeelo, can provide pre-booking software for operators to enable social distancing, and take the strain off public transport at peak times through commuter and school shuttles; further supporting employers and schools to re-open safely.
Third, we need to communicate and incentivize commuters to make better choices. The likes of Citymapper, Zipabout and Moovit can surface real-time capacity on public transport and congestion on our roads; encouraging commuters to take the safest and most effective option.
Finally, implementing measures to control infection risk and make people feel safe using public transport is vital. Governments, transport agencies, operators and unions need to agree to an updated standard for the new normal. Use of Driver PPE, middle door entries, air filtration systems, sanitization measures, queueing at bus stops and stations. Implement it fast, and shout far and wide about it.
All of this requires decisive action from policymakers to engage with the private sector and tear up the old rule book. We need public transport for our cities to recover and thrive sustainably. Let’s get the wheels turning on some new ways of doing things.