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Public Transportation Post-COVID Won’t Really Be That Different

Concepts like shields and partitions aren’t coming to modes of public transport. States have to figure out a way to make the transit safe and favorable for the people who have no choice but to use them.

As India reopens, loosening the tough lockdown restrictions, it seems the rush-hour metros and buses won’t be as packed. It is difficult to social distance on a crowded bus or metro. Despite all of its risks, public transport will remain to be crucial for enabling people, especially lower-income residents – to get around. For them, public transport is not an option or convenience. And it won’t be long before we see crowds inside metros and buses, hanging on to straps, even before the coronavirus has been contained. So, what does the future of public transit look like?

Public transportation, in a Post-COVID world, might actually be not that different from what it used to be. The purpose of public transport is to move a lot of people, to the same destination at the same time. So, the likelihood of shields or partitions, or effective space for distancing inside the coaches are not too high and is also contradictory to its purpose. And that is exactly where the risks start to increase.

In the best case scenario, what could be different are – the number of touch points a person needs to come in contact with on their commute (including payment for tickets or passes), the availability of sanitation kits such as mask dispensers or hand sanitizers, the frequency and routes of buses and trains and finally the responsible behavior of each and every passenger.

This is certainly a critical situation with people concerned about being able to maintain distancing on public vehicles, but also highlighting the same issues of public transportation – Are there enough services available for people for them to get where they need to go? Public transport ridership has dropped considerably in India post the pandemic, but it isn’t going to stay that way for too long. Increased capacity needs to be built for transporting the commuters safely to and from their destinations.

This coronavirus crisis is fast changing the primary role of public transport. Prior to the pandemic in India, public transportation served two major markets – getting people to the densely packed business hubs where traffic bottlenecks and availability of parking is a challenge, and as a crucial mobility for those without access to private vehicles. But now with a huge number of people working from home and many expressing an interest in buying a private car, new or used, post the pandemic, the second use case will play a major role coming out of this crisis.

In that scenario, the cost and frequency could turn out to be more crucial than ever to make sure the people who need public transport actually can, but those changes could be at odds. There has been a lot of talk about fare-free transport as a way of reducing touch points. Although it does make sense, it entails huge costs as well. That is a lot of revenue a state has to give up. And with the lockdowns and drop in public transportation usage, the states and transit systems are already under a massive financial strain. A huge loss in fare revenue could result in lesser or cut service or get additional revenues to cover the shortfall. So the question everyone is faced with is – does a fare-free transport actually benefit more number of people or enable more frequent service?

There are still a lot of uncertainties and unknowns about what needs to be done, or even can be done, to make city commute and public transport safe and efficient, especially in a post-COVID world. Not everyone has the luxury of switching to their personal vehicles to look out for themselves. This holds true for all cities and states, but more so for the metropolitan cities. The cities will be in a total state of chaos if a huge share of commuters decide to drive and stop using public transportation. Cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi already had a traffic issue before the pandemic, with extremely slow commute speeds and times.

Public transport systems are the arteries of India’s economy, connecting the workers with employers and customers with businesses. It is a slow transition back to normal, or the new version of it and the looming question is – What will happen to the longer-term changes? Are the empty seats going to be replaced by other people, making other kind of trips on the same system? Or will they not be filled at all? I tend to lean towards the former but if there’s anyone out there saying they know for sure at this point, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Article in The GPlus by Prassenjit Lahiri, Director @ Social Friendly.

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