The numbers may differ from city to city, but COVID-19 has clearly had an enormous impact on public transport, with the decline in some places as much as 95%.[i] Ridership has mostly followed the trajectory of the virus as governments imposed precautionary lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
But now, as economies start to open up and businesses are bringing back workers, the question is: how do you get riders back on board? Public transport needs to face this challenge sooner rather than later. With workforce shifts likely to change somewhat post-pandemic, it will become all the more urgent that operators address those factors that are in their gift and help return economies to some semblance of normal.
The next normal
On the path to recovery the re-opening of the economy is likely to occur in stages, with some non-essential businesses potentially shuttered for some months and, though ridership numbers will certainly increase, the rates and locations will be difficult to predict. Hence, knowing how much and when to ramp up supply will be a challenge as some businesses and economies will take longer to bounce back post-pandemic.
The move to more remote/flexible working may have an even greater impact. Businesses that once viewed working from home as tricky or unthinkable pre-pandemic have seen some of the benefits and will keep in place the digital support for remote work they had to stand up during the pandemic. However, we are social animals and the natural human desire to work collaboratively and mingle with others will be a balancing force which operators need to factor in.
And then there’s safety or perception of safety - One problem is in predicting the rate of return to normalcy as it’s likely not to be linear. Public transport adoption is likely to start slowly as cities gradually re-open and more businesses call employees back to work, but accelerate as citizens come to realise that it’s safe to ride.
It’s no coincidence that places with higher density populations are experiencing the COVID-19 crisis more acutely. Given the crowded nature of most transit systems, riders will need reassurances that transit is safe, especially in the early post lockdown period. Getting the message across will be key and riders need to understand what the operators are doing and what they can do to help themselves and other riders. An example of an imaginative approach is the Anti-viral train which Angel Trains in the UK are investigating.
While the potential changes to the workforce dynamics are not something that most public transport operators can control, there are other things they can do to bring riders back. For example in China, where businesses are reopening, trains and buses are setting up distancing guidelines to keep riders apart and encouraging low touch digital purchasing of tickets. In New York City, the subways are being closed nightly to completely disinfect cars and transit operators and workers wearing masks and gloves has become the norm. Wearing masks is a habit long ingrained in Japan, but is now seen on the Paris Metro and riders are maintaining as much social distance as possible. Regulators will also have to consider measures to ensure passengers are safe and reassured that steps have been taken to protect them such as in the UK where the government has now made it compulsory for people on public transport to wear face coverings.
Beyond safety, authorities and regulators must be prepared to be flexible as they decide what areas of service to prioritise and where. They must use all tools available to analyse transit patterns as soon as they emerge and again as they continue to evolve. They will have to adjust quickly to the unforeseen needs of passengers before those passengers are inclined to resort to their cars again.
And while digital and mobility-as-a-service (or MaaS) were being implemented or on the horizon for many public transport systems around the world, clearly this trajectory needs to be accelerated. Making use of digital tools will not only help transit operators plan and respond to shifts in ridership, but a MaaS-enabled traveller can use integrated, smart digital platforms to improve convenience and ride safely.
With financial crunches and safety concerns front-and-center, this kind of initiative may seem less than pressing right now, but I believe that now is the time to push on these efforts, not let up.
Accelerating the future of mobility
Getting public transport up and running will be a vital part of the recovery from COVID-19. The critical role transport plays in local economies cannot be overstated, but reviving this in a forward-thinking manner post-crisis is just as important—because all the issues with mobility that were there before the pandemic, such as pollution, congestion, quality of life, will still remain. It’s quite possible that this crisis could serve as a reset point—and move the future of mobility front and center.
Simon leads Deloitte’s public sector transport business in the UK. As a partner in our People and Programs consulting team, he specializes in the delivery of complex business transformation and capital programs. Within the transport sector, he is responsible for the firm’s engagements with transport for London and the Department for Transport, and his particular focus is road pricing/congestion charging, following experience of delivering and supporting a number of these programs around the world.