Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Jul 09, 2020
Staggered timings, the new way ahead for socially distanced mobility

To reduce traffic congestion and maintain social distancing norms, the state of Maharashtra will soon implement ‘staggered working hours’ for businesses and offices in the state. The Mumbai Municipal Corporation (MCGM) is also working on a plan to announce staggered working timings for its own employees. This decision comes amidst rising concerns of the spread of Covid-19 due to overcrowding on board the special trains serving essential workers in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. As the country begins to unlock, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) has emerged as the biggest loser to the COVID 19 disease so far, with consistent highest reporting of new cases and deaths.

Since a long time, transit experts, activists and commuters have suggested staggered work timings to decongest the city and avoid overcrowding in the suburban trains. Interestingly, while the MCGM is still working on the details, the decision comes as a result of repeated discussions with the civic body and Western Railway (WR) officials. WR officials claim that though adequate social distancing norms are followed on WR platforms and before boarding the trains, once commuter enter the trains it becomes difficult to follow social distancing. The primary cause for this is that there is extreme urgency shown by most commuters to get to work at specific times, since most offices in the central business district (CBD) begin around the same time, at 9 AM.

One way out of this problem is to stagger working hours. For example, if most private and government offices begin work at 9 AM and end by 5 PM, then these offices could have people clocking in for work in ‘waves’ – between 7 and 11 AM and leaving after their fixed number of hours are up – between 3 and 7 PM. Though this will not eliminate the problem of rush-hour overcrowding, it will diffuse the crowds to manageable numbers so that railway officials could provide services accordingly.

Staggered working hours have found acceptance in many cities worldwide, with private businesses and government offices adopting staggered shifts. It is a favourite measure often suggested along with other travel demand management measures like shorter work-week and flexitime work schedules by transportation experts to reduce traffic congestion and passenger volumes during peak hours. In Mumbai, this concept was earlier adopted by private offices in the BKC area in Mumbai, to beat traffic. At a government level, on the Delhi government adopted staggered office timings for two weeks during the odd-even drive to reduce traffic pollution. Recently, as a measure to curb overcrowding on public transport in Kolkata, the West Bengal government announced staggered shifts for its employees.

Staggered working hours are proven to improve productivity and increase work-life balance, reduce employee burnout and improve energy sustainability, in addition to its main function of traffic and commuter dispersal. They have been implemented so far in geographies as diverse as Singapore to Austin, Texas to Beijing. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) first brought out a primer on staggered working times back in 2004; however, it provided detailed guidelines in its more recent publication in 2019 ‘Balanced  Working Time Arrangements’. These guidelines focus more on health and productivity of employees and provides details on making work timings family friendly and inclusive.

Several other changes have to be implemented in order to keep overcrowding at bay – Ajoy Mehta, chief advisor to the CMO of Maharashtra, suggested that the mission ‘Begin Again’ and staggered timings tie in with 24X7 city concept, where businesses will be allowed to function for all hours of the day, and staff working from home or in shifts throughout the day. With an average capacity of 2,000 passengers and an actual load of 6,000 passengers; each train was carrying thrice its capacity in pre-COVID 19 days. Hence, such a 24X 7 workday will be essential to manage public transport effectively and restart economic activities for the state.

However, while formulating a strategy that is pro-businesses and restarts the economy, the government has to ensure that adequate care is taken to protect the employees. Staggered work hours will also affect other sectors of the economy; predominantly, the service sector. To make the working experience more inclusive and adaptive, the state has to provide clear guidelines and incentives to all these sectors involved. With more cities and states adopting such measures to ensure travel demand management and effective COVID-19 management, there needs be a nationwide policy framework discussing effects of staggered timings, work from home, flexible work hours on employees and ensure that both businesses as well as employees are safeguarded against possible fallouts of such flexi-arrangements.

Furthermore, a more data-based approach will help in predicting the future travel demand management better. The upcoming changes to the ‘workplace’ – time, location, form, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic are going to cause profound changes in commuting patterns. Analysis of factors like the total number of employees using a particular transit route, origin-destination studies and analyses, effect of several businesses within a locality introducing staggered timings at once on commuting patterns, analog jobs getting converted to digital jobs (freedom to locate anywhere) have to be studied to aid any permanent transit planning. Using data gained from mobile transit applications will aid in fine-tuning these aspects and providing necessary solutions, not just till the pandemic ends; but beyond.

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Amruta Ponkshe

Amruta Ponkshe

Amruta Ponkshe was Associate Fellow with the Sustainable Development Programme at ORF. Amruta works on mobility and urban infrastructure issues with a special focus on ...

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