How Can Public Transport Providers Win Back Passengers?

How Can Public Transit Win Back Users? | HERE Mobility Blog

During the pandemic, public transport systems have shown themselves to be indispensable to the functioning of cities around the world. Public transit has been responsible for getting essential workers to jobs, as well as helping to maintain some sense of "normal" in a time of uncertainty. However, lockdowns and fears over safety have been particularly difficult for transit operators with ridership numbers plummeting. For instance, in the city of London, Underground usage dropped from 4M journeys a day to just 200k. Bus journeys also similarly suffered, falling from 5.5M to 1M. For London's transport authority, such a loss in passenger numbers had a devastating effect on fare revenue, forcing them to request a government bailout of £1.6bn.

For transit operators around the world, this is now a critical time. People need to travel again, but will they feel safe doing so on public transit? Read on to learn some of the measures that providers can introduce to win back passengers.

In this article:

  • How safe is public transportation?
  • How can operators get passengers back on board?
    • Intensifying cleaning efforts
    • Managing crowds
    • Introducing rewards
    • Communicating with passengers

How Safe is Public Transportation?

In recent months, health experts have repeatedly warned against being in crowded, enclosed spaces with other people. Unsurprisingly passengers have become nervous about traveling via public transit. However, the extent to which public transportation is responsible for the spreading of the virus is unclear. Recent studies in Paris and Austria showed that none of the identified coronavirus infection clusters originated on their respective transit systems. Additionally, in Hong Kong, which is densely populated and has high public transit use, there have been little COVID-19 cases.

Regardless of whether public transportation is central in virus transmission or not, operators now need to take decisive action to reassure passengers that they are taking steps to improve safety.

How Can Operators Get Passengers Back On Board?


With coronavirus spreading via surfaces, improved cleaning and the compulsory use of passenger facial masks is an absolute must for public transit. Intensive cleaning is not a new thing for operators. Following the SARS outbreak in 2003, Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation worked to implement regular cleaning practices and apply a special disinfectant to areas frequently touched by passengers. During this time, masks too became the norm. This perhaps gives reason to why 17 years later, Hong Kong has comparatively experienced so little cases of COVID-19 and provides hope to other cities that safety measures can be effective in reducing virus transmission. 

To truly alleviate hygiene concerns, operators will have to continually investigate and implement new cleaning approaches and technologies. At a basic level, this will involve upping the frequency of sanitization. For instance, in New South Wales, Australia, 700 new cleaners were employed to allow for "real-time" and "agile" cleaning responses. At a more sophisticated level, operators can turn to technology. In New York, following success from Chinese operators, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has launched a pilot to use ultraviolet lamps to disinfect the city's subways and buses. 

Of course, with a worldwide focus on combating COVID-19, technology is rapidly improving, and operators must take advantage of this. For example, in only the last couple of weeks, Israeli scientists have announced that they are in the advanced stages of developing a disinfectant that works for months. Evidently, for public transport, this would be a real game-changer in restoring passenger confidence.

Managing crowds

A considerable challenge for transit providers is how to increase the number of people allowed back on vehicles while ensuring social distancing regulations are met. Any reduction in capacity will inevitably damage efficiency. In the UK, rail planners have suggested that social distancing of any kind could lessen a train's capacity by between 70% and 90%. Operators will, therefore, need to establish ways to ensure overcrowding is avoided without damaging their own margins too much. Again, technology may be a significant help. Through the introduction of sensors, operators can understand more about crowding, allowing them to pre-emptively spread crowds by adding services or closing station entrances. Live analysis of passenger movement will also help to effectively manage and reduce congestion as it happens.

To help further build passenger confidence, safety information should be made more readily available. Dynamic signage and apps could be introduced to provide this information live to passengers. Such displays could present information on which stations are overcrowded, what the queue lengths are, as well as the best places to wait. If operators can ensure passengers are clearer on the status of transit before they board or even leave their homes, they are less likely to be apprehensive over traveling.

Introducing rewards

As operators try to win passengers back, the introduction of rewards programs could offer appealing benefits. A recent study from KPMG showed that 74% of consumers will go out of their way to shop where they earn loyalty points, so should the same be expected for public transit passengers? We only need to look at other transport modes, such as airline frequent flyer programs, to see these types of incentives can be highly successful in the industry.

Some public transport operators are even already offering such rewards. In Miami, the department of transport has included an incentivized program on its mobile app. Travelers earn "stars" when they view ads on the app and when they use certain services. Stars can then be used to redeem offers or pay for transit rides. Likewise, in Moscow, public transport users can earn loyalty rewards when they add funds to their travel card, which can be used for discounts at participating stores or in exchange for trips on the transport network.

Communicating With Passengers

Ultimately, improved hygiene, the use of new technology, and the introduction of reward schemes won't restore trust if passengers aren't aware of them. It's imperative that strong communication campaigns are launched, informing riders of improvements. Operators must also communicate with passengers to make it clear that they, too, have a responsibility to adhere to safety guidelines. Transit users should be aware if masks are compulsory and to understand the best way to travel to ensure their own safety and that of those around them.


With lockdowns lessening, operators can now take practical steps to win passengers back and create a "new normal" for ridership in a post-COVID-19 world. With appropriate precautions, coupled with the correct communication, riders should begin to feel comfortable using services again. After all, public transit is the lifeblood of cities, and a necessity for residents, and eventually, they will return again.

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