Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on May 07, 2020
It is necessary to detail the steps that our transit agencies can take in the face of the restart after 17 May.
Steps to restart public transit after lockdown ends This is part one of a three-part series which focuses on starting up transit options in post-COVID-19 Indian cities.

The nation-wide lockdown announced on 24 March has proven to save lives against the COVID-19. The halting of public transport services, restricted mobility and the curfew announced in certain areas of the country did restrict the spread of disease, but it also brought about untold economic hardships on several sections of society, where the most vulnerable have been the worst affected. Crucial transport services ferrying medical and frontline workers proved to be a boon in these testing times. The lockdown also aided the Indian Railways to complete its pre-monsoon maintenance works well ahead of schedule in an unhampered manner.

As more cars and private vehicles come on roads, the capacity of our security systems to ensure law and order on public roads will decrease.

As we are set to lift the lockdown by 17 May 2020, in most urban areas of the country, we face a huge risk — to run public transport services in densely-packed cities means risking the spread of COVID-19. In this regard, it is necessary to prioritise what should get access to road first. We need to examine how public transport is vital to keep the city running and how it enables the neediest to access the city’s services. In the last two decades, the number of cars on Indian roads has gone up exponentially. Maximum road space in Indian cities is occupied by less than 20 percent people who own private vehicles. As more cars and private vehicles come on roads, the capacity of our security systems to ensure law and order on public roads will decrease. Conversely, only managing public transport routes will ensure access to maximum people with a minimum on-ground security personnel. Hence, it is necessary to detail the steps that our transit agencies can take in the face of the restart after 17 May 2020. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)’s Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) has recently published ‘Guidelines for Public Transport and Feeder Modes considering Social Distancing Norms.’ Part-II of this series takes a detailed look at these guidelines and compares them with global norms in post-COVID 19 cities.

Immediate steps to take to restart city transport services

In the face of risks presented by COVID-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) provides guidelines for international travellers. It does not have any advice for local travel, except an ‘interim guidance’ sheet published in 2014, to update public transport authorities against the Ebola virus disease. The International Association of Public Transport (UITP), on the other hand, has published detailed guidelines for public transport agencies across the world to adopt and adhere to, so that it can ensure lifeline transit services are unaffected during the shutdowns in response to COVID-19. The World Resources Institute, has provided a rundown of measures that cities all over the world can take. In addition to the guidelines prescribed by these international agencies, Indian public transit agencies need to have special measures to ensure that adequate precautions are taken to address local conditions. A brief outline of the proposed guidelines is given here:

1. Crowd control and scheduling

Phased resumption: The restart for city public transport such as trains and buses cannot happen all at once. It needs to be done in a phased manner. Initially, holiday schedules or schedules like those of mega-block days can work to transport only medical and frontline service people from their work to home and back. This will minimise non-essential travel and still provide options for people stranded away from their homes.

Queue control: In addition to this, queues will have to be strictly organised, controlled by numbers and maintained to get on trains, metro and buses. To control queues in the initial few days or weeks, the railways may have to engage services of a large number of security personnel, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) may be called on to extend reinforcements in addition to the existing Railway Protection Force cadres. One thing that can be done, across transit modes is to issue tickets to only 50 percent of the coach or overall train/bus occupancy with physical distancing being maintained on seats.

Restricted access: Since entry and exit points of railway stations are fixed and relatively narrow on most stations, entry can be controlled by ensuring that a total of a fixed number of people get access to the station at any given point of time. Once the train is full and has left the station, the next batch of people can enter through the restricted entry gates. After the initial month or so — of only point to point services, instead of halting at all stations, trains can halt at key junctions with maximum overlaps or access to surrounding business/commercial districts and vice-versa during the peak schedules. These scheduled departures can be reversed in the evening times. Thus, restricted access to railway stations and buses by controlling entry and exit points, controlled ticketing via mobile and e-ticketing, and a restricted schedule running services on select routes at select times depending on user demand will help essential workers access train and bus services, simultaneously partly dissuading non-essential travel.

2. Conversion of road travel, worldwide best practices

Many cities across the world are coming up with novel methods to ensure sustained mobility in face of the COVID-19 lockdowns. The classic ‘Avoid-Shift-Improve’ principle to ensure sustainable transportation is being applied with renewed enthusiasm to public transport in post COVID-19 cities. Avoiding travel at all — travel only when absolutely necessary. This has translated into cities such as Lagos, London, Singapore, Berlin having issued detailed guidelines, directives and relief packages for the transit industry. At the same time, these cities have re-scheduled, cancelled or grounded several train and bus services and continue to appeal to their citizens to avoid travel unless absolutely necessary.

Long advocated by urban planners and environmentalists, the forced lockdown and the subsequent shutdown of parks and recreational spaces has resulted in some cities opening up their streets to the concept of slow and sustainable mobility.

Shifting travel modes from cramped, closed environments such as a shared taxi or a crowded bus, to open, more accessible and cost-effective ways such as walking, bicycling and other low-carbon options such as e-bikes and e-scooter options are gaining acceptance worldwide. In China, post the initial wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, cycling demand went up. In Australia, the six-month lockdown has led to soaring bicycle sales. In Berlin, two new bike lanes have opened up. Brussels, Belgium and Oakland, California, have recently opened up their streets to cyclists and pedestrians. Oakland closed nearly 120 kms of its roads to cars and automobiles and opened them to cyclists and pedestrians instead. The fallout of the COVID-19 crisis has led to an increase in the number of reckless driving cases. Therefore, some cities are taking the ‘slow streets’ movement seriously. Long advocated by urban planners and environmentalists, the forced lockdown and the subsequent shutdown of parks and recreational spaces has resulted in some cities opening up their streets to the concept of slow and sustainable mobility. How this would work in dense Indian cities is left to the ingenuity of its planners and implementation experts, but a few Indian cities such as Coimbatore, are showing the way to do it. Improving fuel efficiency and overall sustainability of transport can be adopted by ensuring that trips made during the post COVID-19 phase utilise the most fuel efficient and low carbon modes such as e-bus and hybrid fuel models available to commuters.

3. Cleanliness and hygiene in public transport

Sanitise: Special precautions will have to be taken to ensure surface cleaning and sanitisation of all coaches and buses after every trip and a deep sanitisation at the end of the day.

Protect: In addition, care should be taken to ensure safety of public transport staff. Compulsory use of masks to avoid spread of disease should be adopted across all public transport modes in all cities. To ensure commuters follow safe physical distancing practices, security personnel can be appointed to be present on trips with heavy demand. In places where this is not possible, use of CCTV cameras and thermal cameras can be adopted and increased on public transport to enforce safe physical distancing. Transit staff should be trained to minimise interaction with commuters and temporary barricading can work to separate drivers from the commuters on buses. Alternate vacant seats will ensure physical distancing, and the placement can be decided by each public transport agency on its own as per their internal design regulations.

E-ticketing: Mobile and app-based ticketing will minimise manual interactions, exchange of cash and therefore, could minimise the spread of the virus. Though mobile and e-ticketing apps are available through major transport operators in big cities, the COVID-19 aftermath could see a huge increase in the adoption of these services by commuters if enforced as the sole method to obtain tickets. This also reduces the necessity of bus conductors, particularly on single origin-destination routes without intermittent stops, as prescribed above.

In the initial stages of resuming services in the aftermath of COVID-19, it is essential to follow these measures. However, they should be complemented by other, city-wide resolutions. Banning private vehicles travelling for non-essential purposes could be ensured using an e-pass issued for essential travel (for medical reasons). Paratransit such as autorickshaws and taxis, shared mobility and cab aggregator providers should have restricted access to city roads for some more time until there is no more community transmission in India. Traffic control and infection prevention will become even trickier if private cars and paratransit would be allowed to freely operate on Indian roads. There are a few organisations, corporates and service providers providing emergency medical and non-medical transit options to Indian cities. These should be replicated across the country.

Going by the death toll and rising numbers of infection in other densely populated cities such as New York and Singapore, it looks like the fight against COVID-19 has just begun in Indian cities. It is better to avoid travel now, than risk increasing infections later.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


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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