Public Transport

Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash

Public transport systems have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with ridership down 70 to 90 percent in many of the world’s major cities at the height of lockdown measures. (McKinsey) Still, they have continued to provide a critical service during the pandemic, ensuring that healthcare and other essential workers are able to travel to work. Low-income and non-white residents are also much more likely to rely on public transport services, underscoring social equity issues. Those who are able to shift to more private modes of transport have done so in large numbers, in cities like New York (CityLab) and Santiago (Hernandez) due in part to the largely negated fear of COVID-19 contagion on public transport systems (UITP). 

Public transport operators worldwide have responded to the pandemic by adopting a number of new safety measures, including social distancing and reductions in rider capacity, more frequent service, enhanced cleaning, new infrastructure to reduce contact between transport staff and passengers, and mandatory mask use. Some examples of these measures include: 

  • The use of mobile apps to control capacity and crowding in real time including in IsraelSpainChina, and New Zealand.   
  • Public awareness campaigns highlighting the need for social distancing on public transport, such as Kerala, India’s “#DistanceWhileDistancing” and a campaign in Buenos Aires
  • Rear-door entry and the suspension of fares on public transport in cities across the United States (COVID Mobility Works
  • Contact tracing systems for public transport users which employ an SMS system to trace the chain of contamination in the Republic of Congo.  
  • Free public transport for essential workers across a number of countries in the European Union. (COVID Mobility Works
  • The deployment of hand-washing facilities at bus stations in Rwanda 

These measures, however, have come at a significant cost. The combination of revenue loss from decreased ridership, increased operating expenses, and competing government priorities for financing have led to a critical juncture for the viability of many of the world’s major public transport systems, who are at high risk for bankruptcy without external support. In Brazil, for example, new restrictions are estimated to have cost bus operators as much as USD188 million in daily fare losses, according to the National Association of Urban Transport. 

Government response to the financial crisis of public transport has varied widely. While major government bailouts have been seen in some of the world’s largest cities, they often cover only a fraction of lost revenue, forcing systems to cut services and jobs. It is clear that new sources of funding for public transport will be necessary, such as from fuel taxes and congestion charges.  

It remains to be seen to what extent public transport systems will weather the storm, but the critical role they play in promoting a more sustainable and equitable society has become more apparent than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


This section was developed by SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport.