COVID-19: How to balance people’s safety and mobility

The major challenge in India post-lockdown is going to be maintaining people’s mobility without compromising safety

By Shantanu Gupta
Published: Wednesday 22 April 2020
A DTC AC bus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A DTC AC bus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons A DTC AC bus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has resulted in over two million COVID-19 patients worldwide as of April 2020 and the numbers continue to increase in most countries. To flatten the curve of the virus spread, several countries have imposed extreme measures such as complete lockdown of the cities.

The Indian government has also declared a lockdown until the May 3, 2020. Though the spread of the virus in India has been lower than China, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, it has already burdened our existing healthcare systems. 

Considering the very high population density in the country, the spread of the virus could become uncontrollable if adequate measures are not taken after the relaxation of lockdown.

Transportation services support the mobility of people and goods. They are the backbone of all major supply chains and hence hold the potential to become the carrier of the virus too. To contain the virus, countries have taken various measures such as shutting down or limiting the service to a reduced level of operation.

In China, public transport authorities have ramped up cleaning and sanitisation measures in public transport services. Shenzhen buses are being sanitised after each trip and allowable seating capacity has been reduced to half.

Standing places have been earmarked in buses to maintain social distancing. Buses in Shanghai are being sanitised using Ultra Violet (UV) lights. Wuhan city, that was once the epicenter of the pandemic, has once again started its 30 per cent public bus transport service.

To ensure safety during the bus journey, a safety supervisor is deployed on each bus whose duty is to ensure people scan a QR (quick response) code as a proof for their health status before boarding. People who do not have a health code, need to bring a health certificate issued by their residential community.

Also, wearing masks has been made compulsory for travellers. The bus drivers and the safety supervisor are screened every day and provided masks and hand sanitisers.

Similarly, Land Transport Authority (LTA), Singapore has planned to implement safe distancing measures in trains, buses, bus stops and bus interchanges where orange stickers are placed to demarcate seats that should be avoided and green stickers are placed to designate places where people should stand.

In Melbourne, Australia, ticket transaction has been made cashless. Seats in first rows are unavailable for the public to avoid drivers from catching the virus. Passengers are asked to consider staggered travel time if they can. Increased cleaning with nightly sanitization of the public transport services is being done each day. London has banned the use of front door and trialing middle door boarding in buses to protect the driver from catching the virus.

Although these generic measures are strong enough to reduce the potential for virus transmission; however, they are not sufficient enough for densely populated countries like India.

Unlike western and European cities, the majority of Indian cities do not have adequate public transport services to keep pace with the growing dense population. India has less than 1 bus for every 1,000 citizens whereas countries like the USA, the UK, Australia, Japan, and Mexico have more than 2 buses for every 1,000 citizens which leads to overcrowding in buses.

A comparison between Delhi and other metropolitan cities of highly SARS-Cov-2 affected countries shows that Delhi has the highest number of daily passengers traveling per seat per day (ie 14) which means high overcrowding and less social distancing per bus.

The risk is not only in-vehicle in nature but also gets replicated in the form of more gathering of people at bus stops due to inadequate buses. The more alarming fact is that many bus users belong to low-income groups who cannot afford to undertake luxurious social distancing including adequate hygienic practices such as wearing masks and using hand sanitisers; hence, they are more susceptible to community spread.

How Delhi ridership compares with other cities of the world  

Analysis based on data from multiple sources

Note: KMB stands for Kowloon Motor Bus and BPT stands for Beijing Public Transport; seating capacity for a double-deck and single-deck bus has been assumed as 120 seats and 53 seats respectively


Graph showing Delhi having the highest average daily ridership

Analysis based on data from multiple sources

If the business-as-usual scenario continues once the lockdown gets over, the risk of public transport travellers to catch the virus may lead to exponential growth in the number of SARS-Cov-2 infected people. Sanitisation of public transport is possible only once the service finishes its one trip.

However, it will not be completely effective as people may board and alight the service in between. Also, limiting the public transport service in Delhi will not be as effective as other western and European countries where people can work from home.

A high number of Delhi bus users are daily wage workers whose source of livelihood depends on what they earn each day; hence, traveling for them is as equivalent to basic needs such as food and shelter.

The impact on their livelihood due to the lockdown is going to force them to travel instead of giving importance to social distancing; hence, cutting down public transport service operations might not get replicated in terms of social distancing after the lockdown.

A similar case was observed in Jakarta where the demand remained the same even after limiting down the public transport service.

The risk is even higher in shared intermediate para transit (IPT) services such as ‘Gramin Sewa’ as the seating facilities within the vehicle is quite compact compared to a Delhi bus. Also, as these services are owned privately, therefore there is no medium to ensure that proper sanitisation of the service is carried out.

The major challenge in India post-lockdown is going to be maintaining people’s mobility without comprising safety. Therefore, the government needs to predict and materialise the public transport service for days and months ahead post-lockdown.

To do so, other than cleaning and sanitisation measures following additional measures should be considered by the government:

  • Comprehensive impact assessment to understand the post-lockdown public transport travel demand. The government should ensure that there will no backfire effect in terms of more congestion in buses and bus stops after cutting down the operational level of public transport. If the possibility of backfire comes out to be high then deployment of more buses and increasing frequency would be critical to meeting the demand and maintaining social distance within buses and at bus stops.
  • Seating should be arranged keeping in mind the social distance of 1.5 metres at least. Seats that are not available for the public, can be earmarked using stickers along with earmarking of limited standing spaces inside the bus. Seats in the front row shall be made unavailable for the public along with banning the use of the front door to protect the driver from catching the virus. Along with this, onboard CCTV cameras in buses and at bus stops would be required to ensure people abide by social-distancing rules.
  • Each bus should have a safety supervisor who will be required to guide people about the safety precautions that need to be followed during the travel.
  • A bus app can be developed to make ticket transactions cashless. It will minimise bus user contact with the conductor up to a certain extent.
  • The use of air conditioners in buses shall be avoided for short term as it can help the virus to survive for a longer period. Also, in a closed environment with air-conditioning, the transmission distance of the coronavirus can exceed the commonly recognised safe distance. As the virus can survive in the air for some time, therefore open windows for ventilation or the use of exhaust fans will help to achieve the effect of rapid air exchange in the compartment. For example, KMB buses in Hong Kong have retrofitted opening widows to help increase air circulation.
  • Traffic police must ensure that there will not be more than four people in Gramin Sewa. To maintain queues with proper social distance and avoiding chaos, ‘first come first serve’ discipline in IPT stands shall be enforced. For example, in Mumbai, people follow the ’first come first serve’ rule for buses. A similar rule is followed at Howrah Railway station for IPT and cabs.
  • Taxi aggregators such as Ola and Uber shall be asked to stop carpooling service for short term post-lockdown.
  • Promoting active mobility such as walking and cycling would help maintain social distance as it may reduce demand for using public transport / IPT at least for shorter trip lengths (ie less than 5 km). For example, the Colombian capital, Bogota, added 76 km of cycle lanes overnight to reduce crowding on public transport. New York City is going to install bike lanes on 2nd Avenue between 34th to 42nd streets in Manhattan and Smith Street in Brooklyn. City bike-share programme in New York City has seen 67 per cent rises in ridership. Similarly, Mexico is considering a four-fold increase in its cycling network. It will not only help from the pandemic point of view but also improve the mobility of the poor in the future who cannot afford to purchase a private vehicle.
  • The public shall be well informed about any changes in the time table of public transport and standard procedure to be followed during the use of public transport / IPT.

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