Private vehicle use may surge after crisis
The risk of an outbreak linked to mass transit grows when people spend more time in a bus or a train, and use or pass through stations that typically see a heavy rush of passengers, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Health.Updated: May 23, 2020 22:11 IST
In the next couple of months, as cities start to reopen, the most perceptible change may be in how their people commute. Researchers have established a significant link between the spread of infectious diseases and travelling in buses or metro trains, where people routinely share enclosed spaces with many others.
The risk of an outbreak linked to mass transit grows when people spend more time in a bus or a train, and use or pass through stations that typically see a heavy rush of passengers, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Health.
“The transmission of infectious diseases is dependent on the amount and nature of contacts between infectious and healthy individuals. Confined and crowded environments that people visit in their day-to-day life (such as town squares, business districts, transport hubs, etc) can act as hot spots for spreading disease,” said the authors Lara Gosce and Anders Johanson in the study that found people who took the London Underground from boroughs with high-footfall stations were more susceptible to flu-like illnesses.
The study formed the basis of a recent paper by MIT professor Jeffrey E Harris, who found a similar correlation between Covid-19 infections and the use of the New York subway system. “New York City’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator – if not the principal transmission vehicle – of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic,” Harris wrote in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research of the US.
Such findings and concerns are now forcing transit authorities to reconsider how – and if -- India can restart public transport in a way that crowding is reduced.
“Considering social distancing of a minimum of 1 metre per passengers would mean increasing Delhi Metro services by almost seven times and bus services by five times,” said Amit Bhatt, director of urban transport at independent research organisation WRI India. “But this is not possible. There is a need to take on-board safety measures to protect commuters and on-board staff. This could include sanitizing all locations used for public transport service and to protect staff from exposure to ensure the continued functioning of services,” he added.
Officials of the Union government have said that they are considering doing away with single-use tokens in order to reduce touch points between people, while the Central Industrial Security Force – which oversees security on the network – is looking at contactless frisking and making the government’s digital contact tracing app Aarogya Setu mandatory for commuters.
But most of these proposals are still in preliminary stages, as reopening public transport remains one of the more distant outcomes as cities slowly begin to reopen.
“We are exploring all possible options to minimise the transmission of the infection among commuters. But no concrete decision has been taken as yet. Moreover, public transport service will be restored based on the relaxation in lockdown norms,” said a senior Delhi government official on the options before the Delhi Transport Corporation, which runs the Capital’s buses.
Most experts believe that for the time being, and possibly over the next few years, people may pivot to using personal vehicles.
“Once the lockdown is over, people would like to travel in their personal vehicles as it is the safest mode of transportation to protect oneself from the Sars-CoV-2 infection,” said Dr Jugal Kishore, head of community medicine at Safdarjung Hospital
According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in early March in China’s Guangzhou, a little over a third of the metro and bus commuters were using public transit systems but after the outbreak, 40% had shifted to cars, taxis and ride-hailing, and the rest to walking and biking.
In France, where authorities plan to lift the nationwide lockdown in phases from May 11, the authorities are urging people to use bicycles to commute. “We want this period to take a step forward in cycling culture, and that the bicycle is the little queen of deconfinement in a way,” the minister for ecological transition Élisabeth Borne said, according to Bloomberg.