On the London Underground, Piccadilly Circus station is nearly empty on a weekday morning, while the Delhi Underground carries less than half the passengers it used to. In Rio, unpaid bus drivers have gone on strike. New York City’s subway traffic is only a third of what it was before the pandemic.
One year after the coronavirus pandemic, public transport hangs by a thread in many cities around the world. Passengers stay home or are afraid to board buses and trains. And without its fares, public transportation revenues have plummeted. In some places, service has been cut off. In others, fares have risen and public transport workers face the possibility of layoffs.
That’s a disaster for the world’s ability to tackle that other global crisis: climate change. Public transportation offers a relatively simple way for cities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention a way to improve air quality, noise, and congestion.
“We are facing perhaps the most important crisis in the public transport sector in different parts of the world,” said Sérgio Avelleda, director of urban mobility at the World Resources Institute and former Secretary of Transportation of São Paulo, Brazil. “It is urgent to act.”
But how to act? Transportation agencies that have been bailed out by the government wonder how long the bounty will last, and almost everywhere transportation experts are scrambling to figure out how to best tailor public transportation to the needs of passengers as cities begin. to emerge from the pandemic.
For now, people just don’t move much. Even in cities like Delhi, where most businesses are open, many office workers work from home and universities have not resumed face-to-face classes. Paris has a curfew at 6pm.
In some places, fear of the virus has led people to get into cars. In the United States, used car sales have exploded and so have used car prices. In India, a company selling second-hand cars online saw sales surge in 2020 and its own value as a company rose to $ 1 billion, according to news reports. In other places, bicycle sales have grown, suggesting that people are pedaling a bit more.
The concern for the future is twofold. If travelers avoid public transportation for cars as their cities rebound from the pandemic, that has huge implications for air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, if transit systems continue to lose revenue from passenger fares, they will not be able to make the necessary investments to be efficient, safe, and attractive to travelers.
There are some outliers. In Shanghai, for example, public transport numbers plummeted in February 2020, but passengers have returned as new coronavirus infections remain low and the economy recovers.
But the outlook is bleak in many more cities.
In the Paris Metro, the number of passengers was a little more than half of normal in the first two months of this year. Île-de-France Mobilités, the transport agency for the Paris metropolitan area, said it lost 2.6 billion euros, or more than $ 3 billion, last year. The agency projects a deficit of an additional € 1 billion this year.
In Amsterdam, the number of passengers on the city’s trams and buses is around a third of normal, and the transit agency’s website advises people to “travel only when absolutely necessary.” In Rome, the number of Metro users remains below half of the pre-pandemic levels.
One of the busiest tube systems in the world, the London Underground, which normally records around four million trips every day of the week, is currently operating at around 20 percent of normal capacity. The buses are a bit more crowded and run about 40 percent of normal. The city’s transit agency, which had once projected a budget surplus for 2020, has relied instead on government bailouts since the pandemic struck. It is expected that it will take at least two years for public transportation use to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s been pretty devastating, to be perfectly honest,” said Alex Williams, director of urban planning for Transport for London. “One of our concerns is the substantial declines in public transportation and higher levels of car use.”
London is one of the few cities in the world with a congestion tax designed to reduce car traffic in the city center. Both London and Paris sought to use closures to widen bike lanes.
In the Indian capital, New Delhi, the metro reopened last September after being suspended for many months. Passenger numbers in February 2021 were around 2.6 million, compared to more than 5.7 million in the same month last year, and bus traffic was just over half pre-pandemic levels.
Fortunate are those agencies, as in India and throughout Europe, that are subsidized by their governments. There is even more heartache in cities where people rely heavily on private bus companies.
In Lagos, Nigeria, fares have doubled on private bus lines for trips of more than one kilometer, or just over half a mile.
In Rio de Janeiro, a once famous bus network is in shambles. The private company that runs the system has cut more than a third of its fleet and laid off 800 employees, as the number of passengers has halved since last March, according to the city’s transportation department. Strikes by bus drivers have made bus travel even slower and more chaotic.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said José Carlos Sacramento, 68, the leader of a bus workers union in Rio, who has been working in public transportation for five decades. “I think it will never go back to normal.”
City officials said they hope to use the crisis as an opportunity to revamp the system, including persuading private bus companies to be more transparent about their operations in exchange for possible financial help from the government.
After all, said Maína Celidonio, head of the city’s transportation department, a clean and efficient bus system is critical for Rio to not only reduce its carbon emissions but also clean its air. “It is not just an environmental problem, but a public health problem,” said Celidonio.
The biggest challenge for all cities is fixing their public transport systems now so that passengers can return, said Mohamed Mezghani, director of the International Public Transport Association. They could adjust peak-hour service as telecommuting from home becomes more common, expand dedicated bus lanes that make commutes more efficient and comfortable, or improve ventilation systems to ensure citizens travel by bus. public transportation is safe.
“The cities that were investing will come out stronger,” Mezghani said. “People will feel more comfortable traveling on a new, modern public transportation system. It’s about perception in the end. “
Shola lawal Y Hari Kumar contributed to reporting.