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Can public transport recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Panellists on our recent WBEF webinar were unanimous in their belief that public transport will recover. Post-pandemic, mass transit networks may look and feel different, but many of the changes will be for the better.

Steven Matz, World Built Environment Forum
20 April 2021

Working hours, all change?

While the heightened perceived risk of using public transport will fade, we are unlikely to see a return to pre-pandemic peak-time morning and evening travel numbers. The expectation is that travel will be more evenly spread out throughout the day, aided by flexible remote-working arrangements, allowing a more agile way of working. The B-Society, an initiative started in Copenhagen, Denmark, aims to promote choice of starting hours, driven by chronobiology rather than COVID-19. A shift away from the customary 9-5 day, will require public transport operators to adjust service scheduling and ticketing options. It will be particularly necessary to provide commuters with more information on their travel options. Back in May 2020, a WBEF survey found nearly 60% of respondents in agreement with the statement: “The days of commuting on crowded trains, trams and buses are over.” It seems little has happened to change minds in the intervening 11 months.

Greater emphasis on prevention, crisis management and alternative sources of finance is needed

For transport to have a more predictable, sustainable future, greater emphasis needs to be placed on crisis prevention. So says Violeta Bulc, former EU Commissioner for Transport. It also means, says Maria Vassilakou, former Vice Mayor of Vienna, public transport operators will need dedicated teams focused on resilience and crisis management. Financially, operators need to look at different sorts of customers, such as tourists, says Simon Dixon, Global Transportation Leader at Deloitte. He also feels that governments and operators should be stressing public transport’s green credentials as a means of discouraging private automobile use. This messaging could combine with pricing mechanisms to nudge people back onto public transport and out of their cars. Operators will also need to think about new funding models as commuter revenues remain depressed. These could include transit-oriented development and land value capture.

Can public transport recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Explore how the vision for well-funded, high-capacity, affordable transit networks looks in our new normal.

Public transport networks of the future will be multi-modal, integrated and on-demand

“The future is a mix of mass public transport and private mobility solutions that will work together to provide a seamless door-to-door, on-demand solution”, says Violeta Bulc. Maria Vassilakou, meanwhile, sees Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) offerings as vital in the move towards carbon-neutral cities. One challenge for cities will be overseeing the creation of comprehensive and reliable charging networks for electric vehicles. Ms Bulc happily notes that the EU is seeking to address this issue with its new urban mobility strategy, due next year. Another hurdle for multi-modal travel is the first mile, last mile problem. Difficulty getting to and from transport terminals is a major reason why many people start and end their commute in cars. An integrated travel system allows for improved user choice – for instance, while cycling lanes are great, not everybody is physically able to cycle. Simon Dixon cites the example of a pilot programme in Sydney, Australia which enables residents to book an on-demand home-to-train station shuttle. Technology can extend the range of ticketing choices, drive networks efficiencies, improve user experience and inculcate environmentally responsible passenger behaviours. SmartMove is one such solution. The app, due to roll out in Brussels in 2022, will show commuters the cost per kilometre and social/environmental benefits of their public transport choices.

The future of public transport is a mix of mass public transport and private mobility solutions that will work together to provide a seamless door to door solution on demand.

Violeta Bulc
Former EU Commissioner for Transport

Buses need love too

Traditionally, when people think of transport infrastructure, they imagine projects such as high-speed rail, which are hugely time-consuming and expensive. “There may be a shift of the dial towards other transport infrastructure projects, such as bus rapid transport. These alternatives can move people really efficiently, are a lot quicker to build and implement and are more flexible when things need to change,” says Simon Dixon. We need to alter the societal view that buses are a poor person’s form of transport; it’s not possible to build metro or train networks everywhere. Buses can be a solution to the first mile, last mile issue and play a key role in rural areas. Integrated ticket pricing is central to making buses inclusive and part of a high functioning, accessible transport system.

It’s about connectivity, as well as infrastructure

MaaS provides an excellent opportunity to bring public transport back to rural and remote areas. Says Ms Bulc, service on demand offers an efficient and price attractive solution. Smart city, smart village integration models, which deliver energy and digitalised social services strongly support mobility on demand. This will make exurbs more liveable. Ms Bulc also points to the potential of urban aviation solutions, which involve less in the way of “hard engineered” infrastructure to connect remote areas. During the webinar, all panellists noted the importance of connectivity and customer centricity. “There will be considerable funds spent on recovery projects and everyone’s talking about green recovery now,” notes Maria Vassilakou. “In some parts of Europe, large amounts of money will be spent on new road projects. Couldn’t those funds be better spent on improving connections between rural areas and cities?” Public transport remains a question of connection. Station-to-station connection is part of the puzzle, but the ultimate aim is to connect people and opportunity: education, employment, health care and leisure.