Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on May 07, 2020
Overcoming mass mobility challenges post lockdown.
Transition from stay home, stay safe to travel safe

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all facets of our life. As India is nearing its end of lockdown 2.0, many do feel that 3 May — the day when the lockdown is slated to be lifted — will, in a sense, mark an end of this pandemic in India and life will be back to normal. However, it will be prudent for all of us to accept the new reality that ‘this invisible enemy is here to stay a bit longer.’

Amongst many other economic and health concerns post-lockdown, travel and mobility of the people will be of paramount importance. The gathering of migrant labourers at Anand Vihar station, New Delhi and Bandra Terminus, Mumbai, clearly showed the dependency of masses on the public transportation system in India. How do we deal with mass transport in a manner that causes minimal damage to their health and well-being once the lockdown is lifted?

We need to come up with solutions which weren’t thought of before, or were rejected for being too futuristic or impractical for a developing and densely populated nation like India.

Post lockdown, there will be a fraction of people who would have the luxury to work from home, a few others would have the liberty to avoid rush hours with staggered duty hours and another few who would have the option to shift to their own private vehicles. However, majority of people will still depend upon public transportation system for their daily commute. Long-distance passenger trains, suburban trains, metros, share cabs, autos and buses will be the only options for many and this should be a major cause of concern for all policymakers, urban and transport planners. Since this crisis is ‘novel’, we need to come up with solutions which weren’t thought of before, or were rejected for being too futuristic or impractical for a developing and densely populated nation like India.

The mobility challenge will be to ensure that the social (physical) distancing norm is continue to be followed by mass transit service providers to prevent transmission. To ensure that there is enough space in a mass transit vehicle, we need to have solutions which will —

a. reduce the number of commuters, and

b. modify modes of existing mobility services.

Few recommendations for achieving the above are:

Reduce the number of commuters

Without going into the merits or demerits of the decision, demonetisation did give fillip to digital modes of transactions. Similarly, this pandemic can become the reason for framing policies to push people to rethink the manner in which they function and organise themselves. Post lockdown the government policies should be such that they:

• Promote work from home as much as possible making the travel to work minimal, and only when absolutely essential. This lockdown has taught many to digitally connect and avoid the need to physically travel. Many corporates have even conducted their board meetings, AGMs on digital platforms. The surge of more than 500 percent in usage of online meeting platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc., is a clear indication of this shift. Also the data plans in India are the cheapest and most competitive in the world. We need to incentivise people to continue the use of technology for virtual meetings and better this habit post lockdown.

• Large corporate houses should be guided to work on alternative days with 50 percent workforce each day. The government must incentivise such measures by giving tax rebates to such companies. The majority of urban commuter travel in peak hours is to these corporate hubs. A 50 percent reduction in the strength of the workforce on any given day will result in a sizeable reduction in number of commuters. The corporate hubs of Noida, Gurugram in Delhi and Bandra Kurla Complex and Lower Parel in Mumbai attract huge number of commuters in peak hours and the mass movement of people must be avoided in the future.

• State governments should formulate sector-wise staggered timings for work, thereby reducing the rush-hour overcrowding. The staggered timings can be either sector-wise or even within an organisation. There should be no concept of peak and non-peak hours; the commuter flow should be uniformly spread out throughout the day.

• Schools and education institutes are the most susceptible to this pandemic due to low immunity of children, lack of physical distancing in the classroom and school buses or vans. The solution of staggered timings and 50 percent attendance would be a challenge to be implemented in schools. Therefore, the safest solution for education institutes should be switching over to alternate days of online studies. Many schools have already started their new sessions online and it will be wise if government creates a safe and secured platform to facilitate online education. Modules can be pre-recorded and released only on specific days, so that the total physical presence of students within the class can be controlled and rotated in a manner that only 50 percent of the students need to attend school every alternate day.

Modify modes of existing mobility services

• Mass transits and shared cabs as compared to private vehicles reduce the carbon footprint. However, post lockdown the rules pertaining shared cabs/autos will need to be reviewed. Immediate policy intervention is required to ensure that no more than two people are allowed to travel in a shared cab/auto. Though, it will lead to higher pollution and traffic, but considering what not following this rule would lead to, it’s clearly a lesser evil. Cab aggregators like Uber, Ola should be given reasonable time to make these changes in their systems before they start their services.

• We need to allot more space to cycling tracks to reduce crowding in other modes of transport such as autos and buses for the last-mile connectivity. This is one shift which has been resisted for various reasons such as climatic conditions of a tropical country like India, the lack of political will, absence of cycling tracks and road safety. Globally, this pandemic has made nations invest in cycling infra and it’s time for India’s cities to take this bold step. Various initiatives such as Yulu, Vogo, and Bounce etc. need to be promoted to provide the cycles at various points and create a seamless network of cycles ensuring smooth transition to this mode of travel.

• It is very crucial and challenging to ensure physical distancing in our most traditional preferred modes of travel: Trains (suburban, metros & long distance), flights and buses. The thumb rule for all these mass transit modes should be to keep one seat empty between two passengers.

i. For metros and suburban trains, the solution is to augment the number of services by a huge number. The suburban trains in Mumbai and Metros in Delhi are the most preferred mode of travel. Until their capacity is augmented, limiting the number of commuters per coach is impossible. The number of coaches in metros and suburban trains should be increased wherever possible without any major infrastructural interventions. Innovative ways, including revision of the operations’ timetable must be considered to increase the number of services without any major infrastructural interventions.

ii. Tickets should not be sold for the middle berth in all 3-tier coaches in long distance passenger trains. In case of chair cars; only window and aisle seats tickets should be issued. Similarly, in flights, the middle seats tickets shouldn’t be issued. The concept of Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) in Indian Railways and unreserved travelling should be discontinued too. Buses have different seating arrangements, but the principle of keeping the next seat vacant should be applied there too, with no standees allowed. The financial burden of reduced carrying capacity can be either transferred to commuters or borne by government or a combination of both.

Some of the solutions mentioned above have been in discussion for quite some time, but weren’t implemented due to lack of political will or public consensus. Now that the entire nation has understood the magnitude of this pandemic and the benefits of keeping social (physical) distancing, there won’t be a more opportune moment than this to implement these solutions.

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