Restoring trust in public transport: the way forward

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transport sector has experienced some of the most severe social and economic impacts. Public transport is keeping cities moving through the crisis, getting essential workers to their jobs and supporting essential services. However, this is high risk work for drivers and operators even as they step up use of personal protective equipment and hygiene measures. And the sector overall has seen a significant decrease in ridership, revenue and passenger trust. 

In parts of Asia, governments and communities are seeing a glimpse of how life could be with COVID-19 contained. With the flattening of the curve in sight, local, regional and national governments are taking stock and mapping out a recovery strategy and relief packages for industries that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. 

Compared to the same period last year, the ridership of public transport was decreased by more than 30 percent in Seoul and Taipei city, and a staggering 50 percent in Busan city. In Luzon and cities in Lao PDR, public transport has even been suspended. In cities such as Jakarta where informal transport plays a vital role due to limited capacity of public transport, drivers’ income is estimated to be reduced by 80 percent. 

Never before has transport been so fragile and so vital. In order to maintain essential services during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, local, regional and national governments from South Korea, the Philippines, and the island of Taiwan have offered interim approaches to mitigate the impact on urban logistics and passenger sectors. Registered informal transport drivers in the Philippines and coach drivers on the island of Taiwan are granted cash subsidies. Local governments in the Philippines have taken the initiative to set up mobile shops that deliver produce to communities and government fleets have been deployed to transport frontline workers with repurposed bike-sharing systems. In South Korea, a mobile application has been developed to match the supply of traditional markets and the demand from local customers. 

In the meantime, ride-hailing companies in Southeast Asia are working with local governments to provide the delivery of food and medical supplies and some private sector  pick-up centers such as Gojek in Indonesia are used as prevention centers, providing hand sanitizers and masks as well as testing body temperatures for their drivers as essential workers. 

While interim approaches are being worked out in Asian cities, governments that have seen themselves move to the other side of the pandemic are rolling out relief packages. For example, on the island of Taiwan, the second phase of a multi-level governance framework, Special Act for Prevention, Relief and Revitalization Measures for Severe Pneumonia with Novel Pathogens, is being phased in over a period of three months. The relief package aims to provide tax reductions, interest subsidies, professional training programs, rent reductions, and procurement subsidies for protective equipment.

Nation-wide relief packages, together with local and regional approaches adopted in different cities, have helped illuminate the essentials of the public transport sector and built a better understanding of what is most needed in urban transport systems for people and goods. With these learnings in mind, here are five points that can help cities around the world build their public transport systems back better:

  1. Coordinated multilevel governance. It is not uncommon that local governments do not have the policy tools to regulate public transport in their own jurisdictions. Public transport is essential yet multifaceted, and therefore clarifying the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government is critical for rapid responses as well as effective management. 
  2. Resilient business models. Most of the urban public transport systems in the world already struggle to balance the books and the nosedive in ridership during the pandemic has rubbed salt into the wound. In addition to fares income and subsidies, repurposing public passenger transport for freight transport and commercial activities such as transit-oriented developments will help public transport authorities/operators diversify sources of funding and maximize the capacity of the public transport network.  
  3. Trusted public-private collaborations. While public transport is unequivocally the backbone of urban transport, active mobility, informal, and shared transport help fill the gaps in public transport. This is even more noticeable in the fragmented urban freight sector. Engaging the informal transport sector in the decision and policy-making process is critical for an effective transport system and improved working conditions for operators. Property tenants and businesses relying on the movement of public transport should also be brought to the table as stakeholders.
  4. Passenger trust. Stringent hygiene standards are now the new norm. Reliable services and professional staff are becoming essential for public transport authorities and operators to stay responsive to crises and take proactive steps.
  5. Climate action. Relief packages should be used to leverage, speed up and scale up the uptake of energy transitions, e-mobility and integration of public transport systems to tackle the climate crisis while responding to the global  pandemic.

This is the time to review and transform the public transport sector and the way we view our neighborhoods and cities. Public transport is more than just moving people from one place to another. Now more than ever, it is the lifeblood of an equitable, healthy, and safe city.  

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