The study, Guidance Note on Covid-19 and Transport in Asia and the Pacific, analyses the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns on public transport as travel for millions was restricted and people rapidly transferred to working from home, shopping online and being educated via e-learning.

The report is intended to provide guidance for the recovery of transport operators in ADB member states from the economic and social effects of the pandemic.

Changing habits

The report acknowledges that the pandemic has forced all transport users to reassess the necessity of their trips, and that a high level of uncertainty still remains regarding whether these new habits will be sustained.

However, it suggests that even after all restrictions are lifted, home-working and e-learning will continue to be more common than before. It posits that such changes could significantly change travel behaviours, including the frequency and distance of trips.

The report outlines four possible modal trends which may play out once pandemic restrictions are alleviated:

  • demand returns to public transport - because the virus is under control or because staying at home is not economical, or there are a high proportion of captive users or a lack of viable alternatives
  • the travel mode shifts to walking, cycling and 2-3 wheelers, with less reliance on public transport - because safe and viable non-motorised alternatives are available, or road space is reallocated for non-motorised transport modes
  • cars and motorcycles dominate - because there is a lack of confidence in the health and safety of public transport, walking and cycling are not seen as adequate alternatives, or because users can afford to employ other modes, or
  • travel demand decreases - because the economic downturn has reduced demand for passengers and freight transport, or because high levels of digital literacy and physical capability have allowed for high levels of e-commerce and remote work usage.

However, ADB says that the actual scenario is likely a combination of the four, varying according to infrastructure availability, economic opportunity and public attitudes. It notes that in ADB member countries, demand for public transport has typically recovered at a slower pace than private vehicles, despite the introduction of protective measures to reassure and enhance public transit users’ confidence.

ADB warns that if left unaddressed, this trend could set back decades of effort to promote more sustainable and efficient means of urban mobility, noting that in China where the virus initially emerged, private vehicle sales were almost back to pre-pandemic levels of growth. Sales there rose by 4.4% year-on-year to 2.1 million units in April, and by 12% year-on-year in May.

However, some outliers exist. India is one such case due to the relatively high numbers of captive public transport users in the country. The report also acknowledges that government investment in cycling infrastructure in several developed European cities including Berlin, Milan and Paris, both before and after the pandemic, has also contributed to increased uptake of walking and cycling.

Recouping losses

In response to ongoing and future issues which operators are expected to face, the report proposes a ‘bounce-back’ strategy for public transport operators, which would allow for the restoration of demand in the sector. It comprises three stages:

  • response - in which operators should restrict non-essential travel, protect transport staff and passengers and ensure health monitoring systems are in place
  • recovery - in which operators should monitor, evaluate and review response and recovery measures, relax and restrict non-essential activities and travel in phases as necessary, implement preventative and precautionary operating measures, flexibly re-deploy assets in a constrained environment and introduce technology for contactless systems and agile response, and
  • rejuvenation - where operators mainstream measures as part of the overall pandemic response and reintroduce and modernise sustainable transport systems to be better prepared to respond to future pandemics and disasters.

The study recommends that public transport operators use the improved air quality achieved during the lockdown to promote themselves as low-carbon alternatives to private transport, which would allow the public to retain this level of air quality.

However, the report also warns that this leaves a very brief window for cities to do so, predicting a rapid surge in travel once restrictions are lifted.

It also recommends that passenger confidence should be restored through the introduction of measures such as improved cleaning, thermal scanning, tracking and the implementation of face mask policies. Also, further studies should be conducted to explore how protective and preventative measures can be stepped up to allow relaxation of safe distancing requirements and a transition back to higher capacities on public transport services.

“The two key challenges ahead are addressing capacity on public transport to maintain safe distancing requirements, and how best to regain public confidence to return to public transport,” says Mr Bambang Susantono, vice-president for knowledge management and sustainable development at ADB.

“In the short-term, more effort is needed to reassure transport users of safety, and demonstrate that public transport is clean and safe. In the longer term, technological advances, Big Data, artificial intelligence, digitalisation, automation, renewables and electric power can potentially offer fresh innovations to tackle changing needs and give rise to smarter cities.”

In addition to investment in new technologies and the implementation of precautionary and preventative operating measures during the ‘recovery’ period, the report also recommends the implementation of demand management measures to facilitate better crowd control on transport networks.

It also suggests that government policies and financial support are vital to ensuring that public transport operators remain viable. ADB has invested $US 7bn into the transport sector in the past year, and although it acknowledges that the short-term viability of public transport may be disrupted due to changes in demand caused by the pandemic, the long-term view is more positive.

The report notes that “regardless of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that developing Asia will continue to have a large need for additional transport infrastructure and services.” It also notes that due to the long time-scales of such infrastructure projects, current events may have minimal effect on the eventual success of these new transport links.