One of the core values of urbanists – density – is under siege in the wake of COVID 19. Everything that used to define urban life, from crowded public spaces to face-to-face social interactions, is being redefined under the pandemic. Among the most challenged are mass transit systems built to enable urban living without crippling traffic congestion.
In cities hard hit by COVID 19 around the globe, public transit services are curtailed, with stations shutting down and bus routes suspended. These measures are partly due to the lack of staff and personal protective equipment (PPE) with the enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols, and partly in response to the sharp decline in demand as cities close schools and non-essential businesses and tell people to stay at home. But even before the stay at home orders, people had started avoiding public transit by switching to walking, biking, or getting back into their cars. After all, spending your commute reading, people watching, or trying to start a conversation with the person next to you on a bustling train or bus, something that could be seen as part of the charm of the city life, no longer feels the same since COVID 19.
The prospect of mass transportation seems gloomy, as it inherently contradicts the principle of social distancing which we have grown so used to in a matter of weeks. Mass transportation often operates with increasing returns to scale, or economies of scale, indicating that lower ridership increases the per passenger cost to operate the system. Subways, streetcars or buses cannot afford to have a few passengers scattered in each car or bus, running 80% or 90% below the designed capacity.
But cities cannot afford to do away with public transit, either. Essential workers around the world rely on public transit to get to work. People who do not have or cannot afford other options need public transit to carry out essential activities. After the temporary amazement of empty roads and clear skies during the lockdown, when people return to work and if half of the public transit users switch to cars, cities worldwide would be facing a sudden spike in traffic congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions. Reducing public transit services would also mean further marginalizing and excluding transit dependent communities, which are disproportionately low-income, racial and ethnic minorities.
Public transit agencies are quickly ramping up safety measures, such as daily cleaning and disinfecting, rear door boarding on buses to facilitate social distancing, installing hand sanitizer dispensers, and providing PPE to drivers and operators. Will it be enough, though, to convince riders to return once cities reopen? It might be helpful to look at what happens in cities that have – for now – left the first outbreaks behind and are ahead of us on the nerve-racking path back to normalcy. In Wuhan, China, the metro system started to resume service on March 28 after a two-month suspension since January 23. In the first month of operation, the daily ridership of Wuhan Metro had increased more than threefold to 600,000. While it remains significantly lower than the 2019 level of over 3 million, riders are cautiously coming back – with face masks and social distance, of course.
Other cities have maintained some service through the outbreak and seen more limited impacts on ridership. Beijing maintained public transit ridership capped at 50% capacity until April 29 when, reporting no known cases of transit-related transmission, the cap was adjusted to 65% for subway and 75% for buses. In Hong Kong, while the ridership in March declined over 40% compared to March 2019, the CEO of Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is confident that the agency remains financially resilient. Taipei Metro experienced a more modest decline in ridership – 5% in February and 21% in March on a year-over-year basis. Seoul has seen gradual recovery of subway ridership since the biggest dip in early March.
We should note that these cities have taken aggressive measures in COVID testing, contact tracing and case isolation, as well as encouraging/requiring people to wear face masks in public. They also arguably have stronger cultures of public transit than most American cities. Still, we might see a glimpse of hope: COVID 19 will likely not be the end of sustainable transportation.