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