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Our old future for public transport won’t work with the new normal

11 January 2021
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series

As the world continues to grapple with the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, our previous ways of handling mobility and transport planning need to be updated to suit these changing circumstances, write Professor John Nelson and Emerita Professor Corinne Mulley.

As we start to emerge from lockdown, we hear from politicians worldwide that public transport should be used as a last resort. But this sounds the same as ‘public transport is not safe’. After usage plummeted during lockdown – with some cities as high as 90% - the challenge for governments is to ensure public transport should not only be made safe but also that people must feel safe in travelling on public transport.

The worry must be that if public transport is labelled as a major transmitter of Covid-19 by our Governments then citizens will believe that it is unsafe. This self-fulfilling prophecy will make the decline in public transport seen in lockdown become much more permanent. Coming out of lockdown must be associated with public transport being still the mode that provides the greatest chance of a sustainable urban future.

Introducing measures which, whilst having no scientific evidence for improving safety, may improve passenger trust in the safety of the system. Safe travel is both a question of putting in place good practice with clear messages but understanding how to improve safety perception.

Physical distancing measures like Sydney’s “No dot, no spot” are a good starting point. Other effective measures include marshals to assist with queueing; London is using “Journey Makers” – building on experience with “Games Makers” at the 2012 Olympics.

However, we must recognise that public transport is not only about reaching destinations.  Mass transit facilitates an efficient use of road space – think about the number of cars that would be on the road if Sydney Trains did not exist.

We know that by reducing the number of vehicles, air quality is better. Delhi, India has had the first blue skies for many years as a result of traffic reduction in their lockdown. Public transport provides the necessary mobility for our older and more frail citizens as well as the many people without access to a car. These are exceptional times and it is rare to be thinking about how to depress demand for public transport rather than increase it, but it will be a failure for urban sustainability if car travel becomes the dominant mode again.

The ‘new normal’ offers opportunities that should not be lost.  Working from home has been a hugely successful natural experiment showing that it is not necessary for many to travel each day.  It is an example of a non-transport policy to help solve a transport problem. But some aspects of the experiment still need to be validated – was productivity higher, is worker stress increased? Nevertheless, it is clear that some degree of working from home is likely to be here to stay and to be encouraged.

While active travel like cycling and walking is good for commuters and the environment, most people find it is only good for short trips.  Many travellers in Greater Sydney travel too far for these modes to be an alternative to public transport. And if many people transfer to active modes, it is likely to become difficult to maintain physical distancing between bikes on roads and people on pavements.

In the short term it is clear that there must be some transfer of space to meet the immediate requirements of physical distancing.  Montreal has removed some parking in downtown areas and transferred this space to pedestrians, leaving the pavement for physical distanced queuing for shops. London has closed major central arterial routes to all but bus traffic to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists.

In the longer term, mobility in our cities must change. Policies need to be tailored to different age segments with land use planning addressing the demand for housing choice and different land uses. Areas with mixed land use - offering housing, retail, leisure and jobs - provide the opportunity of jobs closer to home and mitigates against the centralisation of specialised hubs.

Car use will need to be restrained if the roads are not to become gridlocked and there is an incentive to pursue some of the innovative ideas for pricing for road use. Land use and transport planning needs to change the urban landscape and must include planning for further virus driven stresses as well as the survival of public transport to meet economic, environmental and social needs.