What Has the Impact of COVID-19 had on Public Transport?

Aug 12, 2020 | Insights

Public transport services have seen demand fall off a cliff throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  The financial implications of this are massive.

Can our public transport services survive, or is now the time to radically re-think our transport infrastructure and revenue models for a brighter, more environmentally conscious future?

COVID-19 is greatly affecting the way we now live our lives and public transport has taken a huge hit.  Living and travelling during the coronavirus pandemic has fast become the new normal and this has brought with it one of the biggest (if not the biggest) challenges in living memory, for Government authorities and public service providers.  The difficulty from a public transport perspective, is the constant balancing act between providing and maintaining essential service levels, against the risk of potentially spreading COVID-19 infections amongst passengers and drivers who are using and providing the services.

What makes the Government’s job even more difficult, is that it doesn’t help public confidence when public transport systems and services are considered to be one of the high risk environments for the spread of the disease.  This is due to there being a large number of people in confined spaces which in some instances is for a considerable time period too.

People will frequently touch surfaces such as support rails, their seats and related safety mechanisms throughout their journey before reaching their destination.  This helps harbour the potential environment for COVID-19 in an infected person to spread between those they are in close contact with whilst in transit.  This happens via respiratory droplets when the person coughs, sneezes and talks as these droplets can be inhaled or stick to and contaminate surfaces which are then touched by others.

We now know more about the virus and about how the virus spreads.  This is why a number of counter measures have been adopted by transport service providers to ensure the safe, continued operation of public transport services where possible.

Indeed, many transport services across the world as countries come out of lockdown, are managing to continue to operate but on reduced schedules and a reduced capacity which is deliberately aimed at reducing the risk to passengers as much as they can.  Ironically, in doing so, some services have seen a greater demand for transport as more people have become aware of services in their area that they weren’t aware of previously.

This demand has not been seen everywhere though.  According to the Economic Times, COVID-19 has seen 60% of commuters in UK cities, rethink their public transport usage.  There have also been calls from Gen-Z and millennials to use this time wisely and adopt and rethink new modes of transport, including what is becoming known as ‘active transport’.  Their thinking is that it will help reduce carbon footprints around the world and benefit planet earth for future generations.  They indeed are onto something, because I am sure we all remember how beautifully blue the sky was all over the UK during the lockdown months earlier in 2020 due in part to the reduction of polution in the air from reduced traffic.

Many are arguing that transport and community transport can play a major role and set the example moving forwards by promoting the increased use of clean vehicles, advising of green and environmentally friendly travel alternatives to public transport, and building a better environment for a reduction in emissions by encouraging as many people as possible to begin walking and cycling to improve overall health and wellbeing.

What Has the Impact Been on Public Transport?

Public transport has changed dramatically since the arrival of COVID-19.  Passenger numbers were already beginning to fall away by the end of February 2020 and into early March even before we knew about any lockdown measures.  Transport for London (TfL) witnessed the London Underground usage drop 19% in the week begining 15th March, compared with the same period the year before in 2019.

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Then, on 23rd March, public transport for domestic use in the UK effectively collapsed when the Government-imposed restrictions and the national lockdown came into force.  The Department for Transport (DfT), has since come out and stated that national rail usage has been the most affected of all types of public transport, with passenger journey numbers down by 95% in April up to13th May. This also aligns with a reduction seen of approximately 90% the usual bus passenger numbers outside of London and 85%  within London itself.  People stopped feeling safe using public tranport quickly early on in the initial stages of the pandemic.

The impact of COVID-19 means that the revenues for public transport companies is expected to contract significantly during, and over the course of the pandemic, with some likely to go out of business.  This will further strain transport links around the country including bus routes.

For those able to operate, the onboard social distancing measures now in place are adding increasing pressure on the profitability of public transport operators.  This is due to the high fixed costs to operate in the first place.  To highlight the impact this will have on operating costs, TfL have stated that capacity on the London Underground (to ensure social distancing occurs), will reduce operational capacity to 15%. For other types of transport operator, operating costs, such as vehicle leasing and fuel usage, remain a constant.  The drop in passenger numbers across public transport during the pandemic has reduced some of these operating costs such as fuel due to reduced journey numbers which is a slight relief.  However, the numbers travelling do not cover the operating costs to break even.  This will result in loss of profits and sadly the potential for redundancies.  The worst part will come later as we move beyond the pandemic and find outselves in a position where there are less transport services on offer to serve our needs.

What Is The Financial and Economic Impact on Public Transport from COVID-19?

The spread and global scale of Covid-19 has changed our rural, towns and cities priorities as we struggle to avoid infection and keep friends and families safe.

Sadly, in the short term, transport providers will need to adapt to this new normal.  This will impact staffing, cleaning and even scheduling.  With more and more people working from home, commuting less and now more reliant on technology to communicate, it may be while before people begin to feel safe again and move around freely with confidence like they used to.

The financial impact of COVID-19 will be far-reaching, long lasting and will affect almost every industry. The impact will come from losses generated by fewer ticket sales, reduced fines, parking fees and even reduced vending machine revenues!

Transport for London is even predicting that the financial implications of the coronavirus could be up to 500million.  To date, the UK Government has already provided over £600million to support public transport services and this likely only set to rise the longer the pandemic goes on.

The Two Key Challenges Facing Government and Public Transport Use

There are two key challenges facing Government’s and the use of public transport:

  • The First Challenge:

    Finding ways to address capacity on public transport whilst maintaining safe distances (social distancing).

  • The Second Challenge:

    How to build trust once more with the general public so that they again use public transport with confidence.

This will prove difficult, especially as in the UK we are seeing local spikes of the disease emerging due to the increased movement of people as restrictions are lifted.

Adapting to the New World

We are already seeing how transport providers are adapting to their new operating environments.  This is providing confidence for passengers on public transport in the short term.  Measures adopted have included:

  • Deep cleaning
  • Thermal scanning
  • Track and Trace Assistance
  • Face coverings for both passengers and drivers.

In the UK, face coverings are now mandatory on public transport and have been for a while.  This has now expanded further into enclosed public areas of transport hubs, shops and supermarkets, places of worship, indoor shopping centres, banks and more.

It is worth pointing out that a face covering is not the same as full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), it is merely a covering of any type which must cover a person’s nose and mouth. Surgical masks or respirators used by healthcare and other workers as part of PPE should be reserved for people who need to wear them at work, such as health and care workers and people in industrial settings. This is especially important for key workers to ensure we can continue moving forwards through this pandemic.

For clarity, the current UK Government public health advice (as of August 10th 2020) is that:

“Staff should wear a face covering when they are unable to maintain social distancing in passenger facing roles, recognising that there will be exceptional circumstances when a staff member cannot wear a face covering, or when their task makes it sensible (based on a risk assessment) for them not to wear a face covering.”

To assist transport providers, the UK Government have released a risk assessment guide.  This guide is there to help identify the risks and health risks arising from the virus so that transport operators can make better informed decisions about the measures that should be put in place for their services.  You can view this guidance by clicking here.

The Government advises that the risk assessment is to be reviewed regularly as to remain relevant and appropriate.

Is Now the Time to Consider Innovative Funding and Revenue Models for Public Transport?

Maintaining and funding public transit with fares alone based on transport usage has always been fraught with difficulty.  When economies shrink, pumping more money in to fill the gap is not always a viable solution.  Economic stimulus programs should now begin to explore innovative approaches such as congestion pricing and parking management.  This should help then raise money by reducing desire to use personal and private vehicles and encourage greater use of active transport modes such as walking and cycling and wider use of public transport.

Crisis will generally lead to rapid innovation, so the way we see transport now might look very different in a decade’s time.  We might for example rent our cars for short time periods as and when we need them.  Will we even be required to drive them?  The one thing which will not change is that people will still want to move around and get to places.  It’s the invisible thread that ties us all together.  Virtual reality does not quite cut it, so there will always be a demand for movement, and where there is demand, this will drive the need for transport services.  What might be the hardest thing for Government’s to accept in the future, is that they might have greater loss of control over how and why public transport services are needed and used.  This may make budgetary and financial decisions difficult.

Throughout the current pandemic, and once the pandemic is over as we learn to live with COVID-19, Governments will continue to be deeply concerned with issues of health and wellbeing.  The worst-case scenarios you often see in films has been played out right in front of us in 2020.  Pursuing sustainable transport behaviours and models, could be one of the more effective ways to stimulate economic activity which in turn will support employment.

Keeping Public Transport Sustainable

Economics is driven by people.  As people’s needs and wants change, so does the world in which we live in.  The human activity and behaviour during the pandemic in how we move around could be an indicator into how the future of public transport is shaped.  Are our current behaviours going to become the long term societal normal?  Such as working from home in the majority of cases and therefore moving around more locally to where we live, or will our old transport patterns revert back to ‘business as usual’ when this crisis is over?

History suggests that disruptions such as this pandemic, can be the catalyst for shifts towards more sustainable behaviour, but more often than not, avoiding a return to pre-crisis behaviours will likely require Governments to take decisive actions or rethink their policies.  This shift in policy might not please everyone.

To highlight this, take the following example.  Pricing for on-street parking can generate revenues for reinvestment in sustainable transport while disincentivising private vehicle use and thus reduce congestion.  Research has shown that drivers searching for parking are responsible for a third of the vehicle traffic in urban centres during peak hours in areas with unpaid, or under-priced, parking (visit iea.org).  However, prizing people away from driving their own vehicle (giving them a sense of freedom and home comforts) will prove difficult unless the public transport infrastructure is improved, not just in urban areas but rural areas too.  This will take considerable investment at a time when the Government is already in unprecedented debts due to the pandemic.

To become completely reliant upon public transport as a society would require a large, carefully planned investment into a reliable, flexible, and readily available public transport infrastructure.  This would likely need to be aligned with new and improved cycling networks to make environmentally friendly modes of transport more attractive and safer than they currently are.  Government’s will need to show support for public transport service providers as many are experiencing significant revenue losses due to reduced passenger numbers.

In order to build better public transport networks and promote a more active transport adoption, a closer look at transport in city centres is needed.

Public Transport Begins Aligning with Active Transport

Infrastructure investments can be crucial for building trust in public and active transport.  Applying regulatory frameworks can make a big difference to supporting more active and sustainable transport environment for society.  This includes implementing initiatives such as reducing vehicle speed limits and reducing areas for overtaking so that people feel safer riding their bikes in and around the cities and towns.

By prioritising cyclists and pedestrians in shared road environments, this improves safety for the rider and members of the public.  In the UK, the first roundabout which gives priority to cyclists and pedestrians has opened.  The Dutch-style design gives priority to cyclists and pedestrians with an inner ring for cars and an outer one for cyclists.

The instalment has come under some scrutiny as the cost of the project rose from an estimated £800,000 to £2.3m, which Cambridgeshire Country Council has stated was due to “unexpected utility work” and Covid-19.  That said, it’s the first glimpse into the future of transport in the UK.  It’s thought that similar infrastructure projects would also support demand responsive transport services and smaller local busses using technology seen in Road XS which automates passenger demands for transport.

Active Transport

Cost is always the driver behind transport.  Consider weighing up buying a new car versus paying for a public transport service full of glorious and flexible options.  If such a service and inter-linked infrastructure existed, then many of us would likely not need a car at all.

The drop in the price of oil has in the short term made motoring a little cheaper which has seen some pop in their car over nipping down into town on their bike, or taking a walk.  Afterall, it’s potentially quicker and more convenient.  It demonstrates how Government’s need to find the right balance with their policies with incentives and a resounding benefit to participate more in active transport initiatives.  This will determine whether people stick with such initiatives for the long term.

Given we are going through an unprecedented health crisis, the health benefits of promoting active transport are rightly aligned with the UK Government’s ‘Better Health Campaign’.  The goal is to get the public fitter and healthier to help with a potential second wave of COVID-19.

Walking and cycling are two great examples of active transport, but they don’t work for everyone and accessibility to transport needs to be considered at every stage and for all members of society.  Therefore, it is vital that the disabled, elderly and pregnant women are able to access transport networks too.  Everyone should have equal access to transport to ensure they remain active and engaged within their communities.  All social distancing, discrimination laws and equality laws will all still apply.  If you need further information on what this needs, then the guidance for this can be seen here.

The Role of Technology on Public Transport

Technology should exist to do more with less.  Once such example of this is with our  Road XS Dial a Ride platform.  Rather than manually calculating on a spreadsheet the pickup and drop off times, the technology automates this process by utilising mapping engines and algorithms whilst also factoring in passenger transit times.  This brings down the manual work to accurately build dynamic route schedules.  The technology isn’t there to replace people, but to support them in adapting to the needs and transport requirements of the community they serve.  The end result, more capacity to serve passengers to meet their personal needs to fit transport around their life.  This should then increase the overall usage of a service and keep capacity levels and engagement high.  Ways in which technology can support public transport and community transport post pandemic are plenty, including:

  • Enabling tranport teams to work across wider geographic areas and from the safety of home
  • To reduce the physical interactions with the driver so they can respond on demand within the vehicle they operate
  • Dynamically updating passenger routes to recuce fuel cost and slot passengers in within local radiuses
  • Supporing greater local community needs within towns and cities to reduce car routes
  • To offer cleaner technologies to reduce carbon emissions
  • To map transport needs closer to the needs of the community throughout the changing seasons
  • To support local econimies providing staged access to shopping centres and future events
  • To record and maintain accurate passenger records and mobility needs
  • To split services into fixed routes and demand responsive routes, adapting to poorly used stops
  • Reducing the transit times each passenger spends in the vehicle
  • Ability to make advanced, or on demand electronic payments for journeys without the exchange of cash

By integrating technology into transport networks, we will not only be able to provide personalised mobility solutions for residents, but also redesign a more sustainable urban transportation system to manage and respond to the new post COVID-19 world.  This will lead to a reduction in personal car usage and our carbon footprints in the process on planet earth.

COVID-19 and the Environmental Impact on Carbon Emissions

The energy sector has also seen a great hit from COVID-19.  The virus lead to a global 5% slump in demand for oil during the first quarter of 2020.  Interestingly, passenger transport equates to 40% of the usual global oil demand pre COVID, and this equates to 15% of the world’s global energy related carbon emissions (iea.org).

Transport generally makes up 23% of global carbon emissions (BBC).  Due to countries going into lockdown, these emissions dropped considerably in the early part of the year. In China for example, in April 2020, carbon emissions had dropped an unprecedented 18%.  This caused the world’s largest emissions emitter to reduce 250 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution during this time.  To put this in perspective.  On a global scale, this amounts to more than half the annual emissions of the UK!

That figure is staggering.  It goes to show that transport emissions and global warming is not something that one country, or one movement can tackle alone.  It is a global, problem.

COVID-19 for all the pain, suffering and uncertainty, has brought it with one of the first glimpses into the impact human movement and travel has on the eco-system.  For those that thought global warming was a natural phenomenon, as more data becomes apparent, it will shine a light on the way we go about our daily lives and the impact our movements have on the wider world.

We only have one planet.


This article has covered a lot of ground and covered many facets of how COVID-19 has impacted public transport services in 2020.  Hopefully this will prove helpful and informative as we begin our journey forwards into the brave new world which COVID-19 has presented to us.  Will it bring with it long-term change for society and our planet?  Or will we return to our usual behavioural patterns as we begin to move around more freely?

The World Health Organisation is warning us not to expect a silver bullet from a COVID-19 vaccine anytime soon, so as we grow in our knowledge about the virus and the impact it has on our lives, it seems now is the time to plan our future ahead.

To find out more about how Road XS is supporting local communities and NHS service providers, please contact us.

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