Public transport must have a future after the pandemic

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 9th February 2021 by Professor Corinne Mulley Professor John Nelson.

The role of transport has always been to bring people together.  From early days transport underpinned urban creation through people coming together to exchange/market goods. Today transport underpins much of what we regard as fundamental to civilised society – the way to include citizens in society through accessing essential goods and services as well strengthening (indeed some would say develop) the agglomeration economies leading to urban success. The pandemic has sharpened our view of public transport as a critical public service, used by essential workers without alternative options for accessing work.

Transport also has a key role in mitigating climate change and in the making or breaking of a city’s sustainability. Public transport in the future must pay attention to its carbon footprint. On the supply side this means that vehicles must provide lower emissions but importantly too the lifecycle carbon cost also needs to be reduced.  On the demand side, travellers need to make less trips – not no trips – and more local trips as opposed to trips further afield.

A future in which the role of transport in bringing people together is not seen to exist would threaten the existence of urban areas (in particular) in all societies. In many of our major cities e.g. London, New York, the city would not function without mass transit and the same is true of smaller cities and towns.  It is also a question of equity. Public transport carries more captive passengers than choice passengers and many of the captive passengers have lower incomes. The reductions of service put in place by public transport agencies as they faced operational and financial challenges in the pandemic have disproportionally affected lower income[1]. A future that maintains the pandemic’s response of lower service levels and lower quality will not only reduce equity but also lead to a downward spiral in public transport demand. Whilst a reduction in trips is necessary to meet decarbonisation targets, these should not be only the trips of the poor.

Much has been made of the ‘new normal’. It is not helpful to speculate but instead to identify policies which drive the outcomes leading to better emissions and carbon outcomes. Whilst less trips must be made in the future, it is important to shape demand to meet sustainable outcomes. And to tailor supply in ways, perhaps previously unthinkable, to meet the demand in a carbon sensitive manner.

Demand responsive and flexible transport services (FTS), previously having to contend with being labelled as ‘niche’ or ‘gap filling’ have come into their own during the pandemic.  It would appear that passengers are more comfortable with FTS than conventional public transport. The ability to pre-book ahead means that social distancing can be guaranteed, unlike queuing for a conventional train or bus service. Many of the FTS services use bigger vehicles than other ride share options like taxis and TNCs (for example, Uber) which provides greater comfort and the knowledge about pick up and set down locations means that contact tracing is easier, when it is required. The success of FTS should encourage a re-thinking of what is meant by service quality in public transport: the need to keep physical distancing (partly in anticipation of future virus-related stresses) suggests a revision to what passengers see as acceptable loadings in public transport vehicles; being able to book a seat provides a more personalised and safer experience; the flattening of the peaks (as a result of more working from home) can save resources that can be used to reinvest in quality.

We will not fix public transport by concentrating only on the supply side. The UK is in lockdown and so the current position cannot be described as anywhere near normal.  But elsewhere, where there are less restrictions, the travel patterns being exhibited suggest that public transport customers have become both more adaptable and less predictable, probably as a result of the greater flexibility as to where and when they work. As a result, a more personalised transport offer with elements of flexibility, supported by journey planning tools to facilitate COVID-safe travel should be expected to be seen as more attractive. So, in some locations it may be more efficient to run FTS instead of conventional fixed route bus services on a larger scale to reflect this new demand. It is imperative that all forms of public transport are supported by clear messaging to build confidence in using public transport.  This has been very starkly stated by our South American colleague Alejandro Tirachini who argues that associating public transport indefinitely with the spread of coronavirus (as many official statements have done) will condemn it to be used only by those who have no choice[2].

No government policy can attract unlimited funding and so it is clear that there must be a limit to the support given to public transport when patronage is so low. But for sustainability reasons, if no other, there needs to be a way of supporting public transport so that previous public transport trips are not replaced by car trips.  Suppression of car trips might still be necessary and there is potential to contribute to public transport funding through the implementation of some form of road space allocation pricing. But we should be wary of short-term fixes.

Public transport planners need to be innovative in the way they look forward.  Innovative technology could bring the offers of different mobility providers together. Public transport contracts could become ‘mobility contracts’ forcing public transport operators to think about how to provide the mobility required, using a mixture of vehicle sizes and modes, rather than sticking to conventional approaches.  In the UK, mobility contracts for unremunerative services can begin the process of change that could spill over into commercial services by different modes. But, overarching all this planning must be policy to build social equity into the availability of service for the captive passenger.

Innovative forms of funding also have a role. As discussed above, congestion pricing can provide some funds. Land taxes could provide some contribution in the form of an accessibility ‘tax’. For example, the push to replace the shorter public transport trips by active transport will require more active travel specific infrastructure.  This infrastructure is not free and a small accessibility tax implemented as a public transport precept on the rates could pay for many of the improvements needed to make our liveable spaces more sustainable and less dependent on carbon.

[1] DeWeese, J., Hawa, L., Demyk, H., Davey, Z., Belikow, A. and El-geneidy, A. 2020. “A Tale of 40 Cities:  A Preliminary Analysis of Equity Impacts of COVID-19 Service Adjustments across North America.” Findings, June.



About the Author

This post was written by Professor Corinne Mulley Professor John Nelson. Professor Corinne Mulley is Professor Emeritas and Professor John Nelson is Chair in Public Transport at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, The University of Sydney Business School.