The current impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be felt by us all. With travel bans, shopping centers empty, social gatherings prohibited, and many individuals quarantined or simply afraid to go out - the disruption to normal life is considerable. One of the most impacted fields from the virus is, of course, urban transportation. This article will look at the effects of the coronavirus on urban transportation and the measures which are being taken to prevent further spread.
But first, let's recap: in December 2019, reports began to emerge of an outbreak of a new respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) from Wuhan, China. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. To date, there have been over 200,000 recorded cases in 166 countries and nearly 9,000 deaths.
In regards to urban transport, the coronavirus pandemic has already caused widespread disruption in many cities around the world. Read on to further discover the impact of COVID-19 on urban mobility and the measures transportation providers are taking to reduce transmissions.
In this article:
1. The impact on urban mobility by transportation service
- Public transit
- Ride-hailing and taxis
- Alternative travel options
- Food delivery
2. Measures by transportation providers and cities to reduce virus spread
- Keeping spaces clean
- Changing behavior
- The use of technology
1. The Impact on Urban Mobility by Transportation Service
With transmission rates higher in crowded spaces, a busy bus or crammed subway carriage seems a likely breeding ground for the virus to spread. It’s therefore unsurprising that worldwide public transport use has rapidly declined. Some European countries have advised residents against taking public transport unless it's absolutely necessary. In China, even more, drastic measures were applied during the height of the epidemic where due to travel restrictions, public transport use virtually collapsed.
At the time of writing, the US is experiencing the early stages of the pandemic. However, a drop in passenger numbers can already be seen. In New York, ridership on the subway is dramatically down, March 11 saw 948,000 fewer trips than an average weekday in January. This trend is also being seen in other US cities, such as San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which has reported an 85% decline in ridership and a 50% reduction of economic activity. In some areas of the US, services are already now closing, such as city-run buses in Great Falls, Montana, which will not resume services until at least March 27.
Ride-Hailing and Taxis
For taxis and ride-hailing providers, the impacts of COVID-19 are less clear. With obvious nervousness surrounding public transit, passengers may instead choose to use these services. According to Marketwatch, ride-hailing giant Lyft reported in early March of no adverse impact and logged its largest-ever weekly revenue total.
However, with increasing workplace closures and the dramatic decline in aviation passengers, taxis and ride-hailing providers are beginning to feel the effects. Uber, which normally relies on 15% of gross bookings coming from air passengers, voiced concerns of potential impacts early on. Uber has now, alongside Lyft suspended pool rides in the US and Canada, and ride-hailing service GrabShare has taken this even further, suspending its services in certain areas of the Philippines until the public health situation de-escalates.
Alternative Travel Options
For those who still need to get around cities during the pandemic, alternative travel modes such as cycling and walking present a viable option.
According to The New York Times, there has been a dramatic increase in biking with the city’s bike share program seeing a 67% usage increase in March 2020 compared to the previous year. Chicago, too, has seen a dramatic rise with a nearly 100% jump compared to the same time the year before.
In Denmark, authorities have encouraged residents taking shorter journeys to walk or cycle instead of using high-risk travel modes such as public transit.
A Word on Food Delivery
As one of the most significant players right now, the impacts on online food delivery at this time are also worth noting. Currently, with many residents unable, or afraid to go out, the option of restaurant-quality food delivered to their door provides some semblance of normality.
Certain food delivery companies are taking this time to widen their services. For instance, Deliveroo, which is headquartered in London, has begun to add kitchen and household products to its offering. However, with worries emerging over potential supplies, the full impacts on the industry remain to be seen.
2. Measures by transportation providers and cities to reduce virus spread
Keeping Spaces Clean
In attempts to keep the coronavirus at bay, transport operators are turning to rigorous cleaning regimes. In Dubai, more than 1000 workers were deployed to sterilize the metro and tram systems, along with hundreds of buses and taxis. Across the globe, similar sterilization approaches have been taken on transportation systems. The Taiwanese approach, which is considered one of the most effective, can be viewed here:
To further reduce the spread of the virus, transport operators and authorities have been raising awareness of how passengers themselves can avoid transmission.
Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, has mandated that everyone must wash their hands before boarding any form of public transport - this method has also been adopted in Taiwan. Worldwide, operators are stressing the need for traveling individuals to take measures such as avoiding travel completely if they are unwell, and maintaining a two-meter distance from other passengers at all times.
Additionally, food delivery companies such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates have reduced human contact by offering “no contact” drop-offs where food is simply left at a customer’s door.
The Use of Technology
In challenging times, transport operators have been turning to technology to more efficiently reduce the spread of COVID-19. Shanghai public transport firm Yanggao has invested in ultraviolet light to destroy germs on buses. The introduction of a UV light disinfection chamber has seen bus cleaning time reduced from 40 minutes to 5.
According to Vox News, a technology firm from China has developed an algorithm to help transport operators identify commuters not wearing a face mask, and Taiwan’s metro agency has installed an infrared tool to measure an individual’s body temperature, barring entry for anyone exceeding 38 degrees Celsius.
For urban transportation, the impact of COVID-19 and the measures that are taken depend on the type of service and the current situation in that location. It is currently impossible to predict how events will fully unfold, and as the situation continues to change, this article will be updated. Once the current crisis has lessened, hopefully, lessons learned can be implemented to help safeguard passengers of the future.
*New measures will be updated below
*Update as of 7 July
According to Moovit, public transportation has begun to recover but not to pre-COVID-19 levels. This can be seen in Europe where in Madrid usage is -38% and Rome -45%. In the United States, public transport is around half of what it was pre-outbreak. In Boston, ridership is -55%, and in New York, levels are -53%. The height of the pandemic has also caused in New York for bus ridership to overtake subway ridership for the first time since records have been kept.
Around the world, many public transport operators have put in measures to help ensure the safety of passengers. Switzerland and England have recently introduced the compulsory wearing of face masks, and San Franciso’s Caltrain has increased service frequency to help with social distancing.
Ride-hailing and taxi services
With people traveling less ride-hailing and taxi services have continued to suffer due to the pandemic. This has resulted in Grab cutting 5% of its workforce, Uber and Lyft have also both cut their workforce size.
For micromobility, the impact of coronavirus has been mixed. On the one hand, leading micromobility providers have cut the size of their workforce. However, many believe that the use of these devices is key to the success of environmentally-friendly economic recovery.
*Update as of 21 April
According to Moovit, public transportation use In the US continues to decline since the start of the outbreak with New York -76% and San Francisco -80%, respectively. In recent days, usage statistics show that in some European cities (including Madrid and Rome), ridership has increased slightly (1-2%) compared to the previous week.
With the significant decline in passenger numbers, many ride-hailing providers have broadened services, including Uber, who announced the company will offer broader courier services for packages, medication, and pet supplies.
*Update as of 7 April
Global public transport usage continues to fall. Statistics by Moovit show that ridership is down 90% in Rome, 85% in Israel, 76% in London, and 72% in New York.
According to Statista, the number of cars used for daily commutes dropped in Madrid and Milan by approximately 80% in the third week of March.
With ride-hailing usage significantly down, Lyft is now referring drivers on its platform to jobs at Amazon.
Food delivery providers, such as DoorDash, are widening their offering to include convenience store goods.
There have now been over 1 million recorded cases of COVID-19 worldwide.
*Update as of 26 March
Global public transport usage continues to fall, usage statistics from mobility app Moovit shows that use is down 86% in Milan and Lombardy, 84% in Madrid, and 54% in the New York City metro area. In London, 40 Underground stations have been closed.
Micro-mobility provider, Lime, has temporarily removed its electric scooters from 20 countries and 21 US states.