NEWS
16/05/2020 10:26 AM IST

How Can India Reopen Public Transport Post Lockdown? An Expert Explains

Commuters with masks, passes instead of daily tickets and plenty of disinfection.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Delhi Police personnel stand guard as a bus reaches New Delhi Railway Station on May 7, 2020.

As the third phase of the lockdown instituted to contain the spread of Covid-19 inches to an end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced this week that the next phase will be “very different”. As calls for kickstarting the economy grow louder, the government has also started framing guidelines to reopen public transport systems. 

Last week, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said that public transport is likely to resume soon according to new guidelines. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has also said that the state wants to begin bus and metro services inside districts after 17 May. 

Some authorities, such as the Delhi Transport Corporation which runs the city’s bus service, have drafted protocols which will be enforced once the services resume, The Indian Express reported. The suggestions include allowing 20 people on a 40-seater bus and encouraging cashless transactions. 

However, it will not be easy to enforce social distancing and other restrictions on India’s public transport system, which is already stretched beyond capacity. HuffPost India spoke to Vaishali Singh, Senior Associate, Urban Planning and Design, at Urban Works Institute (a network partner in India for the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, or ITDP) to understand if India’s transport system is equipped to deal with the overwhelming demand as it enforces physical distancing, and how the changes should be implemented.  

Edited excerpts from the email interview: 

If we do have to live with Covid-19 for some time, as experts are saying, what changes will India have to incorporate in its public transport system? 

ITDP India Programme’s report has immediate and medium-term recommendations for transport undertakings reopening bus operations. Some of the key highlights of the report are: 

*Only commuters wearing masks must be allowed to board the bus. 
*Conductors must ensure passengers queue up to board and alight the vehicle and ensure it doesn’t get overcrowded. 
*Contactless ticketing options like passes and digital payments must be developed and promoted. 
*Agencies must communicate relevant and updated passenger information to avoid overcrowding and confusion. 
*And finally, terminals, bus stops and buses must be sanitised regularly. 

(The full list of measures can be found here)

Is India’s public transport infrastructure equipped to deal with the usual demand while maintaining social distancing? 

COVID pandemic has changed the way people work and commute. In cities across the world that have reopened, the ridership of public transport starts off low — only 30-40% of previous users return — but gradually grows to pre-lockdown levels of demand. Public bus agencies in India should resume operations with their full fleet and hire additional private buses to serve passengers without crowding. Many State Transport Undertakings (STUs) already hire private buses on contract basis. 

Was a complete shutdown of public transport necessary during the lockdown, given how it has shut off access to even health facilities for many people? 

Despite the lockdown, buses in many Indian cities continued to run for essential services. Mumbai, Pune and many other transit services were operating 10 to 30% of their fleet to provide services for essential workers. Delhi was running services on a demand basis. Mumbai’s suburban rail, for example, used this time for the upkeep of their station, tracks and trains. However, the lockdown was required to avoid people from making unnecessary trips and prevent public transit lines from becoming hotspots for transmission. 

What lessons can India learn from other countries around the world in terms of reopening public transport? 

There are two key things we must learn from countries across the world: 

1. Transit agencies must start operating with their full fleet to meet the demand and avoid overcrowding. For example, within 12 weeks of starting operations, nearly 80% of bus users in Chinese cities have returned. To meet the demand safely, Indian STUs will have to deploy more buses to provide frequent services. They can hire private buses for this. 

2. Many cities like Milan are expanding their walking and cycling networks, which has reduced the strain on its public transit system. India too must follow suit, promote walking and cycling in its cities and build adequate infrastructure for the comfort of pedestrians and cyclists. 

What changes should be introduced in the metro system and buses to make travel after lockdown safer? 

There are several measures state transport undertakings (STUs) can take to make travel safe for its staff and people. Some of the key measures are: 

*Disinfect all public areas of terminals every 2 to 3 hours, and other areas at least once a day 
*Drivers and conductors must disinfect their hands and wear a mask and gloves before taking charge of the bus. 
*Before every trip, the conductor must ensure that the bus has been cleaned and disinfected. 
*Substitute tickets with passes (daily, weekly, monthly) to minimise ticketing interactions. 
*Buses for high-risk people like healthcare and sanitation workers should be different from buses for general passengers. 
*Advise passengers to wear masks and use hand sanitisers frequently. 
*The bus crew must ensure a queue-based entry of passengers with safe spacing into buses.
*If the bus is occupied to safe capacity, more passengers should not be allowed inside. 
*Consider thermally screening passengers before they board the bus 

Most metro stations already have guards at entries and exits but this is mostly for security reasons and not to manage crowds. How can overcrowding be prevented? 

*Providing frequent services is essential to avoid overcrowding. The security guards at the entry points can help in managing the crowd.
*If the coach is occupied to safe capacity, more passengers should not be allowed inside.
*The security guard must ensure a queue-based entry of passengers with safe spacing into the coach.
*Encourage people to travel in off-peak hours and avoid the trip, if possible.  
*Display guidelines for safety measures and hygiene for passengers at metro stations and inside the metro.
*Make announcements about the metro schedule and running status
*Set up a helpline for passengers for queries and provide updates using various platforms like WhatsApp, SMS and phone call

What about buses and bus stops? 

*Drivers and conductors must disinfect their hands and wear mask and gloves before taking charge of the bus. 
*Before every trip, the conductor must ensure that the bus has been cleaned and disinfected. 
*Disinfect all public areas of terminals of every 2 to 3 hours, and other areas at least once a day. 
*A record of the last disinfection procedure should be displayed inside buses and at terminals to build public trust. 
*In air-conditioned buses, improve ventilation by increasing frequency of fresh air intake. Disinfect the air conditioning system everyday. 

How often should buses or metro trains be sanitised if they are making multiple trips in a day?

*Before every trip, the conductor must ensure that the bus has been cleaned and disinfected. 
*Disinfect all public areas of terminals every 2 to 3 hours, and other areas at least once a day. 

How can the government ensure that new rules and social distancing are being followed effectively? Is it possible to balance this humanely with people’s need to travel for work? 

*Better frequency of buses will avoid overcrowding at the bus stop and terminals. Government will also have to actively support the transit agencies financially during this time. With more financial resources, STUs will be able to operate at the recommended frequencies. 
*If the bus is occupied to safe capacity, more passengers should not be allowed inside. 
*Inform passengers about the bus schedules through newspapers, social media, posters etc. 
*Display guidelines for safety measures and hygiene for passengers at bus stops, terminals and inside the buses. 
*Make announcements about bus schedule and running status 
*Set up a helpline for passengers for queries and provide updates using various platforms like WhatsApp, SMS and phone call. 

How can the Maharashtra government ensure social distancing and sanitary conditions in Mumbai local trains, which are usually packed?

*Strict enforcement is essential to avoid overcrowding in public transport. 
*People should be encouraged to work from home if possible. 
*People should also be encouraged to walk and cycle to reduce the strain on public transport. In Mumbai, for example, 46% of the total trips are by walking. If good infrastructure for walking and cycling is provided, a higher number of people will take it as their primary mode of transport. 

Nitin Gadkari has said that the government is looking to adopt the ‘London model’ for public transport. What is this model and how effective will it be in India? 

The ‘London Model’ Nitin Gadkari mentioned is essentially promoting Gross Cost Contract (GCC) model for private bus operations. In this model, the buses are owned and maintained by private partners, and paid for every kilometer operated. The STUs have the authority to decide the routes and fares. Through this model, the public entities incentivises private entities to provide high-quality services without bearing revenue risk. Any gap between the operating cost and revenue is borne by the STU through KPI-based financial-support from the government. Some STUs in India have already adopted this model. The national government has advocated for this model, especially in the procurement of e-buses under the second phase of the FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles) scheme. 

Is this an opportunity to introduce long-term positive changes in our conception and management of public transport? 

COVID-19 provides Indian cities with an opportunity to transform their public transport services by improving user experience through technology, investing in public transport as a social good, and reforming informal transit services. 

1. Public transport systems in Indian cities can leverage technology to improve user experience by providing reliable and easy to understand information to passengers, make fare payment seamless through e-ticketing options, and use digital data to inform service planning. 
2. Public transport must be seen as a social obligation by state and national governments as it provides affordable access to opportunities for all sections of the society. Greater investment in public transport can improve its quality and attract users from polluting personal modes of transport. 
3. And finally, informal transit services like shared autos/taxis, e-rickshaws and private mini buses—that serve the bulk of public transport trips in Indian cities—can be professionalised through technology and financial assistance from the government.