Of all modes of transportation, local public transport is the big loser of the coronavirus crisis. During the exceptional situation presented by the crisis, the number of passengers riding buses and trains in the world’s major cities has plummeted by up to 90 percent. Public transportation not only faces the problem of substantially fewer customers, but it must also ensure that social distancing and hygiene rules are followed. Lars Wagner, the spokesman for the Association of German Transport Companies, says: “If we have the same number of passengers at peak times and require them to maintain a minimum distance of 1.5 meters from one another, then we’d need four times more trains and buses than we currently deploy.”
Although the automotive industry was not spared in the short term, it could benefit from the crisis. New vehicle registrations in Germany fell by 61.1 percent in April 2020 compared with the same period the year before, and the decline in Switzerland was even more pronounced, at 68 percent. But this demand shock may be of a short-term nature. During the crisis, the share of trips by car in Germany rose by 10 percent and interest in owning a car increased by 45 percent among people under the age of 35. According to surveys by Bloomberg, traffic is already higher in large Chinese cities than it was on average last year. Mobility researcher Dr. Thomas Sauter-Servaes of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, forecasts similar trends for Switzerland and Germany: “Until there’s a vaccine, cars will continue to benefit.”
This is contrasted with providers of mobility services and traditional car-sharing providers, such as Mobility and Ubeeqo, among others. Not only did they have to apply for short-time work for their employees, but in some cases they also had to suspend their entire ride-pooling and hailing operations or adjust their business model. Micro-mobility services, such as e-scooters, e-bikes and Segways, have had to fight for survival too as a result of reduced commuter traffic during the lockdown. The coronavirus has thus weakened the commercial part of the sharing economy and boosted interest in exclusive forms of mobility.
During the initial phase, non-motorized private transport, such as walking and bicycling, will be among the winners of the coronavirus crisis along with the car. Since the restrictions to fight the coronavirus pandemic were implemented, Swiss citizens have covered more than twice as much ground by bike or e-bike than they did in autumn 2019. At the same time, the amount of traffic involving all other modes of transport has fallen drastically. So it’s little wonder that Swiss broadcaster SRF refers to a “bicycle revolution in Europe’s cities.” The triumph of the bicycle won’t last long, however, if we don’t lay the necessary foundation now. In order to make cycling a safe transport mode of choice we need real and not just painted bike paths with the right of way as well as significant investments in better infrastructure and good signage. Cities should only build what they want to keep after the crisis, i.e. they should combine their pop-up infrastructure with long-term goals.
Local public transport is essential to ensure sustainable transport trends
In addition to ensuring good connections between cities and regions, the environmental advantage of public transport compared to motorized private transport is an important reason for the involvement of the public sector. Comparing the utilization and greenhouse gas emissions of public transport with those of private vehicles, public transport is better for the environment: Greenhouse gas emissions per person-kilometer by public transport are less than half the emissions of cars. Environmentally-friendly public transport in, for example, Germany, saves 10.5 million tons of CO2 annually. Less motorized private transport, more support for public transport and the addition of a broad range of sharing options to existing transport infrastructure are the only way to make cities more liveable and ensure the success of the transport transition. Funding rider-oriented and climate-friendly public transport has benefits beyond the environment. The total economic benefits outpace the operational costs on average by a factor of 3.8. Thus, every euro spent is repaid three to four times over.