In the economic planning for recovery from COVID-19, governments have rightly focused on sectors that can generate jobs and put money into people’s pockets. Housing construction is one. Infrastructure projects are another. And the jury is in: transport and mobility are an intrinsic part of economic activity. Without goods and people moving around, the economy falters. Yet the transport policy settings in place in many countries might actually undermine the very economic recovery we are all seeking.
Back in the pre-pandemic days, our transport systems weren’t exactly perfect. Road congestion was estimated in 2018 as costing the US economy some US$87 billion each year in lost productivity, according to INRIX. That is typical of many large cities across Asia and Europe as well. Because of that, most governments have been, for the past two decades or so, on a campaign to shift travel from private motor vehicles to public transport.
Indeed, the very functioning of our cities — where most of the world’s economic wealth is created — isn’t possible without public transport. The Union International des Transports Publics told the European Commission in May that “the economic benefits of public transport are five times greater than the money invested in it.” And there are also huge environmental benefits.
This brings us to the question of economic revival. A successful economic revival requires the return of mobility of people and goods. But, sustainable, ongoing and strong economic revival will also depend on how well mobility is executed.
We are now beginning to see a pattern of new waves of infection sparking new lockdowns in a kind of stop-start attempt at economic revival. Often there are calls to limit public transport as part of that response, reinforcing the view that a safe recovery cannot include public transport. If we’re not careful, a message such as this may see a return to bad travel habits that may undermine the very economic recovery we are trying to achieve.
Until a vaccine is available, society will continue to endure outbreaks that must be rapidly dealt with so that infection rates remain manageable. Realistically, maintaining a constant state of zero infections appears impossible or comes at too high an economic cost.
Governments can therefore adjust their public transport protocols now to a more sustainable posture that can underpin economic recovery through all phases of reopening while setting up urban transport for a smarter long-term future.
What we need is an approach to transport and mobility that balances a public health and an economic perspective.
Here are seven things we can do:
- Rapidly measure the new normal. If travel behaviors have indeed altered, especially the time of day of travel, then the way in which we have designed our public transport system and services may no longer be relevant. It might be that we don’t need the same capacity we had before the pandemic to meet unconstrained public transport demand. Until we measure and come to grips with that change, we don’t know what challenges we are facing, which means we might be pushing people away from public transport unnecessarily.
- Increase public transport system capacity by reallocating road space. Twenty percent system capacity is too low. Cities have already expanded lanes for cycling and walking. Why not buses? Why default to a squeeze on public transport when a squeeze on motor vehicles is better aligned to economic, social and environmental outcomes, and will drive more efficient mobility to strengthen the economic recovery?
- Make the cycling revolution permanent and embrace micro-mobility. It is fortunate that so many people have purchased new bikes or dusted off their old ones during the lockdowns. But, apart from the desire to avoid public transport, the lack of cars on the road has also acted as a major incentive for safety-conscious cyclists. If we are expanding lanes, then let’s expand them for e-scooters as well.
- Keep monitoring social-distancing rules and wear masks. Many countries are now asking their citizens to wear masks on public transport, and it seems an obvious way to allow some easing of the spacing constraints that come with vehicles. But, without such a step, problems will quickly emerge. The question should be: are there measures we can take that achieve just as safe an environment as social distancing, but with less impact on system capacity?
- Consider ending peak hours. The period during lockdown and now reopening has shown a willingness by the public to embrace change when we can see a clear link to the greater good. Transport planners have always wanted to have demand levers to pull — now may be the time. As the economy reopens, different countries are considering protocols such as delayed shopping hours, staggered office shifts, different school hours and more working from home. Even a small change to peak hours can make a material difference to transport. Some of these changes need not come at the expense of the economy and may even boost productivity.
- Make use of other mobility platforms. Transport planners have always known the huge benefits gained when journeys are shared. That is most true of mass transit, but it’s also true for motor vehicles. Average vehicle occupancy rates have generally been dropping across Europe and the US over the past two or three decades for reasons not fully understood, but sometimes described as “increased individualism.” The algorithms in many mobility platforms do an extraordinary job of matching compatible journeys in real time, enabling vehicle sharing. While social distancing has meant a ban on carpooling in many places right, with compulsory masks and a limit of two passengers, these platforms can be an important part of the armory.
- Change the message. Start encouraging people to return to public transport and start reinforcing the safety of the system from a public health perspective. The sooner the better, before unwelcome travel habits are formed and before it is too late to reverse poor perceptions of public transport.