The travel statistics provided by Google Mobility Reports for March and April were startling. Up to 97% reduction in public transport use, across some of the world’s most populous cities. This near total reduction in typical travel demand has been true across car and public transport modes. As lockdowns are eased, and this unexpected social experiment develops, transport planners must rapidly develop workable plans for many months of safe and socially distant operations.
Is socially distant commuting possible?
Transport authorities play a crucial role in connecting people to jobs, healthcare, education, family, and other important facilities. In the future, authorities have to carefully balance how they provide communities with an essential service, while managing the potential health risks of social interaction and the spread of the coronavirus. This is alongside other challenges authorities are facing around the sustainability of long-term funding solutions given reductions in fare income. Transport authorities and city planners need to work out how to unlock their city without causing a spike in infection rates due to increased levels of activity and social interaction.
Specific requirements on safe levels of social distancing are going to have a profound effect on how transport networks in our cities function, with prolonged implications for our daily lives. Whatever the local rules, social distancing will lead to significant restrictions in the capacity of our networks meaning fewer people are able to travel and there will be constrained travel choices: of route, time of travel or whether to travel at all.
Reshaping services, and managing public expectations at the same time, will require a new level of forecasting. This is a complex and challenging new equation, with unfamiliar new assumptions to account for. Demand will be affected by which types of business are open or closed and by the percentage of the population still self-isolating. We also don't yet know what the consequences of government furlough schemes, ongoing homeworking trends, or spikes in unemployment will be.
Modelling new behaviours
Our city-scale, agent-based modelling approach allows us to identify which stations may be susceptible to crowding above a safe, social distance threshold, under different likely future scenarios. MassMotion, our pedestrian-scale modelling tool allows us to identify what queuing strategy, station lay-out, or adaptation of space could minimise unnecessary crowding within a station, train carriage, or streetscape.
Using both of these tools, we can help our clients plan for safer transport services, even under changing social distancing measures. The impacts will also extend beyond public transport with the function of our public spaces, streets and squares all changing in order to comply with safe social distancing requirements. We are also talking to our developer clients about how buildings, public spaces and commercial developments will need to be managed differently in the future and how these modelling tools can help them plan for ‘a new normal’.
Several cities and transport authorities have moved swiftly to adopt the unforeseen benefits the pandemic has brought: reduced road traffic congestion, cleaner air and quieter and safer streets for people to walk and cycle in. This includes designating ‘slow streets’ to provide more outdoor space for communities (like in Oakland and San Francisco, California); creating emergency cycle lanes for key workers to travel safely to work (now seen across many global cities); and taking measures to protect public transport staff from interactions with passengers (like middle-door boarding and fare free travel as seen in London, UK). The benefits extend well beyond transport with the opportunity to address challenges our cities have faced with poor levels of air quality and the associated health impacts on their residents and to create a more inclusive and accessible environment for all residents.
Why not be optimistic?
Cities across the world are understandably focused on the immediate challenges caused by COVID-19 and the urgent need to restart their economies. Simultaneously our current situation offers us a chance to explore the most significant transport behaviour change since the mass-produced private car became a reality. It’s time for an informed debate, to review our priorities and develop a shared vision for the future of our public transit networks.
Adapting to a COVID-19 world
The COVID-19 pandemic is a major shock to the world. The human cost is hard to bear and our thoughts are with all those affected. As engineers, designers and consultants we have a role to play - this is a moment to be brave, try new ideas and collaborate to develop services and facilities our communities need.