Public transport must adapt to a “new normal” in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and adopt technologies that will render it more green and resilient to future disasters, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The report, Guidance Note on COVID-19 and Transport in Asia and the Pacific, details the profound impact of the pandemic on transport, as swift lockdowns forced millions this year to work from home overnight, schools to shift to e-learning, and consumers to flock to online shopping and food delivery.
While public transit may have been previously perceived as a mostly green, efficient, and affordable mode of travel, initial trends in cities that have re-opened have indicated that public transit is still considered to be relatively unsafe and is not bouncing back as quickly as the use of private vehicles, cycling, and walking.
“The two key challenges ahead are addressing capacity on public transport to maintain safe distancing requirements, and how best to regain public confidence to return to public transport,” said Bambang Susantono, ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development. “In the short term, more effort is needed to reassure public transport users of safety and demonstrate clean and safe public transport. In the longer term, technological advances, big data, artificial intelligence, digitalization, automation, renewables and electric power can potentially offer fresh innovations to tackle changing needs, giving rise to smarter cities.”
While drastic lockdown measures around the world have brought world economies to their knees, satellites have recorded data on how the concentrations of CO2 and air pollutants have fallen drastically, bringing clear blue skies to many cities.
But as cities have reopened, traffic levels have increased. For example, Beijing traffic levels, by early April 2020, exceeded the same period in 2019. If this trend is seen on a wide scale, it could set back decades of effort in promoting sustainable development and more efficient means of urban mobility.
The report says there is a short window of opportunity for cities to promote the adoption of low-carbon alternatives to lock-in the improved air quality conditions gained during the peak of the pandemic lockdown. Public transport can play an important role through more active promotion of clean vehicles, provision of quality travel alternatives in public transport, and a better environment for non-motorized modes such as walking and cycling to enhance overall health and wellbeing.
The confidence of passengers on public transport should be restored through protective measures such as cleaning, thermal scanning, tracking and face covering, the report says. Further study to explore how protective and preventive measures can be stepped up to allow relaxation of safe distancing requirements would help mitigate capacity challenges. A possible future trend may be consolidation of services and rationalization of routes to better serve the emerging travel demand patterns and practices.
As countries enter the “recovery” phase, further preventive and precautionary operating measures and advanced technology should be implemented to enable contactless processes and facilitate an agile response. Demand management measures can facilitate crowd control in public transport systems and airports. As a complementary measure, non-motorized transport capacity could be expanded to absorb spillover demand from public transport.
Since mass public transport is the lifeblood of most economies, government policies and financial support are essential during this period, to enable public transport operators to stay viable and continue to support the movement of passengers and goods in a sustainable way.
For ADB, which committed last year $7 billion to the transport sector, behavioral trends linked to COVID-19 may require a review of the short-term viability of passenger transport and operational performance to meet changing demand for public transit systems. “Regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic it is clear that developing Asia will continue to have a large need for additional transport infrastructure and services,” the report concludes. “It would take several years before the projects currently in the pipeline would be operational and much can happen during these years.”