Mass transport has been among the hardest-hit sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic. As ridership numbers have continued to reduce, many operators in developing and developed countries have had to face an uncertain reality. It’s a reality about their viability in the coming days. As demonstrated by the pandemic, the right response ought to plan for all contingencies.
It should, however, not overlook the value brought about by shared transit in terms of economic development. Cities worldwide have had no option but to put in place strict measures aimed at guaranteeing safe passage of essential workers since the onset of the pandemic.
Johannesburg, Lagos, and Addis Ababa, are among the cities where mass transport options, e.g., buses, have been forced to operate at sixty percent of their standard capacity. The same lockdown restrictions implemented in Brazil are thought to have cost bus operators in the country as much as USD 188 million each day.
Many transport providers have, at the same time, had to spend whatever they had saved up to try to protect their passengers. For instance, transporters in Kigali, Rwanda, have flooded all available bus stops with hand sanitizers and portable sinks, with the government also chipping into these efforts.
COVID-19 Implications for Informal Operators
When it comes to developing cities, the biggest challenge is that a large percentage of public transport is not only informal but also privately owned. Take Nairobi, Kenya; for instance, seventy percent of the city’s population relies on the privately-owned buses and matatus to commute to and from work.
The scooters, taxis, and unregulated minivans serve as the only form of motorized travel, providing a comprehensive and reliable transport service compared to the formal system. It’s also a significant source of employment for thousands of city dwellers who don’t have access to individual transport.
Given that the informal service is mostly out of the authority’s control, the officials can’t make a turnaround and insist on implementing pandemic-worthy measures. If you look at South Africa, you will notice that hundreds of its informal public transport operators have refused to abide by the government’s requests to enforce capacity restrictions.
The argument advanced by the operators is that reducing their carrying capacity will make it harder for them to make a decent living. Some have also argued that forcing the operators to reduce or suspend transport services may not benefit the industry. They’re convinced such actions may drive them out of business and make it harder to recover even after the pandemic.
Public Welfare Implications
According to mobility reports sourced from Google, persons visiting public transit locations, e.g., the waiting areas, terminals, and bus services have reduced by close to eighty percent. The figures are representative of what’s happening across IGC countries. Most operators in these countries have had to scale down their operations since March.
Others haven’t been so lucky as they have had to close down routes deemed commercially unviable due to less utilization. Some have even gone as far as passing their costs onto the travelers. Although the visits continue to rise in some areas, poor and disadvantaged travelers who don’t have access to individual transport continue to face looming restrictions.
The social impacts are, without a doubt, quite significant. Even though individuals with access to private travel means have enjoyed clear and quiet roads all through, continued denial of shared transit to poor households may prove disastrous. Such households have had no option but to cycle or walk to their destinations.
But then again, the added outdoor time limits and curfews have severely impeded access to social services and places of work. Evidence collected from Nairobi suggests that the total share of work opportunities within sixty minutes of travel remains up to five times high for those using individual transport.
It’s as compared to those walking or using shared minibusses to commute. Low-income households are not only cut-off from the available opportunities, but it also restricts their access to emerging opportunities. It then leads to higher unemployment risks among low-income families and communities.
Work-from-home schemes and social support have remained a crucial life-line that has assisted in preserving livelihoods at a time when people are unable to travel freely. They are also essential as they help conserve the worth of firm-specific skills and knowledge gained by employees over the years.
But then again, such programs remain incredibly challenging, especially when looked at from the context of developing countries. They are not only hard to sustain when operating on a limited government financial plan, but they are also hard to target. The reason being that most employment is informal in such countries.
Preventing a Move from Lockdown to Gridlock
As the developing countries consider reopening their economies, there’s a need to ensure that their cities won’t move from lockdown and into a gridlock. The lack of sound investments in public transport and accessibility means the emerging middle class will continue using private travel.
If this goes unabated, it may jeopardize decades of efforts to create sustainable public transport. Evidence recently collected from European cities suggests that congestion and pollution rebounded sharply once the restrictions were eased. Many consumers opted to use private transport in place of shared transportation.
These are trends that are not only problematic for the effects they have on public health and climate change, but also on the impact they pose to economic development. Research conducted over the years has shown that enhanced mobility is instrumental to the large economic growth of all urban areas.
People choose to live closer to their workplaces due to the high costs associated with making a daily commute. In the long run, these constraints companies forcing them to remain in a local scope, limiting job opportunities. On the other hand, when individuals commute across a city effortlessly, it allows for specialized and large-scale production.
Not many transport modes can advance such synergies as efficiently as mass transport. With limited resources and land for building in most major cities, cars capable of ferrying more passengers per trip can increase environmental, social, and economic gains.
Data obtained from developing cities suggests that investments in public transportation enable people to make longer commutes and this, in turn, frees up land for other uses. In the long term, it’s a move that immensely contributes to the increased clustering of city economic activities.
Users get to feel these benefits directly when their travel times become drastically reduced. The wider society also gets to benefit indirectly as faster travel contributes to reduced trade costs. An overall reduction in the prices of goods and services in the urban sector also occurs.
Preparation for a New Reality
Studies on the economic sector show that by reducing accessibility, unemployment will not only occur in large numbers but that it will also hurt urban productivity. Authorities around the world, thus, need to put in place measures to safeguard against COVID-19 while also facilitating mobility.
The government response should include creating faster lanes, introducing bike paths, and incentivizing the public on the importance of shared transport. Such measures will help enhance mobility while also promoting environmental conservation efforts. It’s expected that public transport will continue to record low numbers as most people are still wary of getting infected.
There’s also a need to reduce load capabilities and improve hygiene standards within the sector itself. Investing in street lighting, walkways, cycle infrastructure, and footbridges in cities where most residents walk, cycle, or walk to work will prove crucial in sustaining accessibility. Contact us for more information.