We have many reasons to be thankful for the public transport sector at the best of times. Over the past 18 months, a period that could quite easily be described as the worst of times without too much hyperbole, the travelling public’s gratitude has multiplied inordinately through a series of hugely challenging, unprecedented scenarios. Intertraffic spoke to Sylvain Haon, senior director of strategy at UITP – the International Association of Public Transport, to find out how his organization have viewed life during a pandemic from a mass transit perspective.
Public transport after COVID-19
As the world starts to sputter back to life after one of the most tumultuous and difficult periods since the Second World War, the noticeable rise in public transport usage has become something of a barometer. For those that have had no choice but to continue going into work by public transport, even at the height of Covid-19, virtually empty trains, trams, buses and metros have become an all-too familiar sight, as if the six people on board the 0755 have somehow survived an apocalyptic event. And in some ways, of course, they have. Over the last few months though, and with an enormous debt of gratitude to the scientists responsible for developing the vaccine public transport patronage has started to creep back up. However, the challenge is far from over.
“Public transport is the backbone of sustainable urban mobility, providing an essential service to keep the heart of cities beating. By investing in public transport and encouraging active mobility, we can build back to better mobility, better cities and better lives,” says the UITP website’s bespoke Covid page.
“Extensive evidence has repeatedly shown that with the correct measures in place, public transport is COVID-safe. And by sharing knowledge, studying data and organising events, our global membership aims at helping the sector in rebuilding after the pandemic.”
Public transport trends and challenges 2022
So, the public have been convinced that their chosen mode of transport is safe, but what, we asked Haon, are the trends and challenges that he and his colleagues are keeping a close eye on? How are the UITP’s members looking to maintain the regained momentum?
“So at the global level, you have to differentiate between regions of the world. You have to differentiate between Europe and North America, and between North America and East Asia, for instance,” he explains. “East Asia, for instance, has recovered much faster. And as you know, in many places, the level of ridership are very close to being something like they were pre-pandemic. It's not the case everywhere, of course. We have exceptions. Taipei’s metro, for instance, is much lower at the moment.”
“North America is catching up slowly but the numbers are accelerating, while Europe is also recovering but it's more slowly. It’s quite difficult to give a general figure and it doesn't necessarily make that much sense to do so anyway, but we are somewhere 80% of pre-COVID levels.”
As for the reasons behind the differing levels of restored patronage, Haon is in no doubt.
“The curves are going up but it's no secret that it's connected to the sanitary situation in a given country, aligned with what are the public policies in place and what has been the message. It’s the correlation between those two factors.”
Public transport operators have the safety of their passengers at the heart of every decision they make but it’s impossible to imagine that also top of their list of priorities is one simple question: when will ridership figures be back to “normal”?
“How quickly can we expect to recover the level of ridership in many places around the world?” asks Haon, rhetorically. “Pre-pandemic levels of public transport patronage were breaking records, especially in Europe, so trends were usually very positive. The first goal is to get back to those levels. When this will happen, nobody knows. But nobody thinks it's going to happen very quickly. It will take a little bit of time and the sector has some work to do to make this happen as quickly as possible, I think.”
Certain sectors of the transport business that we have covered in these Intertraffic features over the last 18 months have been able to react quickly and implement measures and schemes at previously unseen speeds. Does Haon believe that the public transit segment is equally agile?
“Public transport is able to react quite quickly in adapting processes,” he replies. “Cleaning standards, for instance. And also developing new services, such as information on crowding levels of vehicles, crowd management at stations and so on. So, I would say that the public transport sector has been able to build some important components of what you could expect to be part of a new customer experience for transport.”
“And that's really the challenge, you know? People should be confident that they will find a system which is safer than before Covid and that their customer experience will be more enjoyable. I don't make any speeches or do any interviews on this topic without mentioning this because it's very important.”
Public transport is safe
At the beginning of the pandemic, when Europe was under the first of several lockdowns, people who had no choice but to use public transport to get to work were doing so in fear of contracting Covid from touching seats, doors, handles and straps, but Haon is at pains to point out that this was never a very accurate picture that had been painted.
“The level of contagion in public transport is very low and this has ben comprehensively explained and scientifically proved. At UITP we didn't say much about it at the beginning, because we're not sure but the more we've known about the virus, the more we've known about the contagion, the more we've been able to measure, the more it's come out that the infection level is low,” he insists.
“Public transport is safe. We have to address the health of the people, the environment, the economic development, if we want to get out of the crisis, we need to address this challenge as quickly as possible. And we're still and, in fact, more than ever part of the solution that's missing. Of course, we've suffered the impact of the crisis. So there are financial challenges. Also, because addressing those main topics means an evolution of the cost.”
The cleanliness of public transport modes is also another major factor in how travellers view their city’s mass mobility options. Anyone who has travelled on public transport in both Geneva and London can’t fail to have noticed the absence of free newspapers littering the seats and overflowing bins on Swiss trains. Haon, however, does not necessarily think that public perception of a network’s levels of cleanliness clouds the view of how they have reacted to the pandemic.
“You're actually talking about two different things,” he says. “What you're referring to is our duty to provide a good travel experience. I truly believe our members are doing their best and I'm pretty sure they've all improved actually. But we should not forget, the virus is airborne. And that's the difference. In the beginning we didn't know that, so we were cleaning everything. Think about it. If you spend five hours in a room with 15 people and you don’t open the window it can be the cleanest room in the world, you're exposed to the virus, far more than if you're in a place with ventilation.”
“Above all, it's wearing a mask. Think about how many times the bus or train recycles air. And I'm not even talking about ventilation systems and air conditioning, which have been improved. It’s about the length of the journey and the behaviour of the people. “
Building trust for public transport
How does UITP look at the next six months or so, with winter coming in the Northern Hemisphere? Do your members have measures in place to counteract another wave of Covid to ensure that public transport doesn’t suffer again… or is that a little beyond the realm of the UITP?
“Our realm is really to make public transport as safe as possible, to build the trust with our customers and to work on the evolution of the customer experience,” Haon responds. “We've learned a lot and our members still have a lot to do for greater complementarity. The acceleration to complementarity between mass transport and connectivity and shared criteria, other shared modes… that's what you can expect from us and maybe also transforming short-term initiatives, such as street design or cycling promotions, into long-term initiatives.”
Learnings from COVID-19
Look back over this series of articles on www.intertraffic.com and one theme that will become apparent very quickly is that good use was made of what we came to call a global pause. The pandemic gave cities, authorities, councils the chance to rethink how they did things, bringing in interim measures that proved so popular, or environmentally successful, that they've been kept and in many cases become permanent. Has that, we asked Haon, been the case with public transport sector as well?
Brussels-based Frenchman Haon is enthused. “It's really exciting, accelerating the deployment of some solutions.Contactless payments, as an example, have really taken off and that's not going to go away. So whether it’s cleaning the station environment or whatever, a lot of these things are definitely going to stay to a large extent but with protocols. A lot of the issues have been resolved through information, crowd management, measurement and information that accelerates integration in the urban mobility system of all shared and creative modes of working, cycling and basically building resilience.”
Mobility as a Service market observation: a solution to the private car
Another sector that initially struggled at the outbreak of the pandemic but has emerged a leaner, more agile product is Mobility as a Service, a transport innovation that the UITP has fully embraced.
“It's mass public transport together with other solutions, which makes a proper alternative solution to the private car.”
“We consider public transport to bring together shared and creative modes of transport,” explains Haon. “So basically, whatever except the private car. This is reflected in the work we do and of course by our membership. Uber is member of the UITP and we have a few micromobility companies that we are working with and of course some MaaS platforms as well. So, for us, it's all together. Of course, we have to work on the complementarity, as I said earlier but it's mass public transport together with other solutions, which makes a proper alternative solution to the private car.”
But how deeply embedded in the UITP psyche is MaaS now? Haon explains that MaaS is now “a little bit beyond the hype” but that “everybody's committed to deploy it.”
“I think we need to realize that there are various ways to do things, and we have to explore what benefits the urban transport system as a whole, and that there will be different models, right? But there are also things that can be done to improve the travel experience.”
“Account based ticketing is already something interesting, aside from MaaS, but we have to look at proper service planning between the operators. We have a lot to do in exporting data, improving the design of networks, etc. So yes, there's Mobility as a Service… but there's also other things we can do to improve the travel experience.”
Do you have other ideas on this or another matter you would like to share with us? Get in touch!