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You Asked Us: Can public transport recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Does the route to recovery involve getting commuters off buses and onto bicycles? Do the difficulties of the past 12 months make fare rises inevitable? And should metrocards double up as vaccine passports? During our recent WBEF webinar Can public transport recover from the COVID-19 pandemic? you asked us. Here, our expert panel responds.

World Built Environment Forum
28 April 2021

Expert panellists:

  • Violeta Bulc, Curator of Ecocivilisation and former EU Commissioner for Transport
  • Simon Dixon, Global Transportation Leader, Deloitte
  • Maria Vassilakou, CEO, Vienna Solutions and former Deputy Mayor of Vienna

If authorities have to diversify their climate-conscious range of public transport options, shouldn’t active travel solutions such as cycle share schemes be the answer?

Simon Dixon: It’s a great solution for able-bodied people, in areas where the topography and weather is relatively mild, and where the roads are safe. Studies show that, for example, in places like the US and the UK, most car journeys are less than 3 miles in distance. If we could get as few as 10% of those people out of their cars and into more active modes of transport, we would see the positive effects. It would ease congestion, and improve both public health and the state of our communities. So yes, active travel is one answer, but not the only answer.

Maria Vassilakou: Another answer is Mobility-as-a-Service; seamless, integrated, flexible combinations of different modes, as needed. But yes, if we’re looking at how to make cities more liveable, we have to think about how we make them walkable. Using urban development as a means of creating “15 minute cities” should lie at the heart of any urban mobility strategy.

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Violeta Bulc: We should also be looking at door-to-door models. This could mean using micro-mobility solutions for the first part of the commute – between home and the community transport hub. From there, the journey continues with shared-, collaborative- or mass-transit public modes. Cycle share schemes have proved to be very successful in many cities, but not every city, and not in all seasons. What we need is diversified, year-round solutions.

Public transport operators around the world have suffered financially as a result of the lockdown. Could panellists expand on how authorities can reduce those operational losses without punishing commuters with raised fares and reduced services?

MV: Governments can compensate for the operators’ losses, pretty much as has been the case with businesses. For example, the Austrian government has compensated businesses up to 80% of lost revenues during the lockdown. Why not do the same for public transport companies? Why can’t we push public funds into public transport, if the alternative is that the services become more vulnerable and less flexible over the decade to come? There are other ways to provide support indirectly, for instance through uplifting land values on properties belonging to public transport companies. But these options are, in many cases, already exhausted; they have been a preferred means of financing metro-expansions for years. But revenues from land uplift taxes could be used specifically to refinance public transport. So too car parking charges.

Many governments have compensated businesses for lost revenues during the lockdown. Why not do the same for public transport companies?

Maria Vassilakou
Former Deputy Mayor of Vienna

SD: Authorities need to consider all options for funding public transport – including those approaches previously regarded as “off the table”. When we look out at how public transport is funded in cities around the world, we see a range of models: central and regional government grants: commercial development of operators’ real estate holdings; local sales taxes; road pricing. If operators can develop a good mix of funding sources, they will be better able to offset unexpected operational losses due to sudden reductions in passenger numbers. In this way, they can avoid cutting service levels or raising fares.

The discussion around vaccine passports is becoming increasingly divisive. Does the panel view the creation of “health passes” for public transport as likely and/or desirable?

VB: It is perhaps a likely move, but not one that I support. Temporary solutions often turn out to be permanent, and this idea is too open to misuse and abuse. Around the world, vaccination programmes are progressing well; in the foreseeable future a critical mass of people will receive the jab. Under these circumstances, I can see no good reason for so-called vaccine passports.