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COVID 19 & Lockdown: Impact on Travel Behavior & Public Transportation



Hemant Tiwari, Suman Mishra

COVID-19 outbreak, which is declared as pandemic has affected more than 3.2 million people covering 210 countries around the world, starting from Wuhan, Hubei province, China. As COVID-19 is not something to stigmatize and could transmit to anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion. Most of the countries have initiated a modality of complete or semi lockdown to cope with this pandemic hence, Nepal also moves in that direction from March 24, 2020.

After the country is locked down, many people are left wandering at the streets, trying to reach their homes which are far away to and from Kathmandu. Government has been trying to help people reach their home. Governments strategy of providing transportation services to vulnerable citizens is praiseworthy however the chances of spreading the virus is even more. World Health Organization (WHO) suggested physical distancing is crucial to win this war with COVID-19. All buses moving to and from Kathmandu were found to be fully occupied without maintaining the 2 meters physical distancing measures between passengers as recommended by WHO. Regardless of circumstances while letting them travel from one part to another part of the country, use of medical masks and physical distancing should have been made mandatory.
As we all are suffering from lock down, which will have significant impact on the economy of the country, lock down has created positive vibes to rethink our traditional approach towards transport planning. Normally, streets of major cities of Nepal such as Kathmandu, Pokhara, Butwal etc. are overcrowded with vehicles which results in huge delay during peak hours. Due to COVID-19, almost all the streets are empty, and the cities are breathing a fresh air for some time.

Prioritizing private vehicles is not what is required at this stage. Focus should be on safe operation of public transportation. If it is to be run on the same condition without any preparation and restriction measures in place, it might be even riskier considering the nature of COVID-19.

Lockdown has created the concept of “Work from Home”, which could possibly be a game changer move in the major cities with high traffic flow during peak hours. The ‘Work from Home’ concept, which many organizations are forced to adopt could be considered as alternative approach to solve the congestion even after lockdown is lifted up. This will not only have positive impact on the congestion, but also saves travel time. Consulting firms can apply this concept and may ask their employees to work from home. In addition, it will also reduce the demand of petroleum products, which is one of the main contributors of trade deficit of Nepal. “Study from Home” concept has been practiced in developed countries however this method is relatively new to Nepal and is being tried by different educational institutions around the country. If the implementation is successful, this could reduce the travel demand of major cities of our country especially in Kathmandu Valley. People might feel easier to work or study from home as they do not need to travel through the congested streets of Kathmandu.

With increasing demand of lifting the lockdown, government is also planning of relaxation on the lockdown in some essential facilities. To maintain physical distance to reduce risk of transmission government is considering motorcycle movement with just single rider and four-wheeler movement with just two people. Is allowing only the movement of motorbikes and car justifiable considering the targeted group? As majority of worker and low- income groups travelers depend upon public transportation, the present concept will not fulfill the objective? Allowing private vehicles only, those workers and low-income groups need to rely on taxi which is one of the expensive modes of transport.

Prioritizing private vehicles is not what is required at this stage. Focus should be on safe operation of public transportation. If it is to be run on the same condition without any preparation and restriction measures in place, it might be even riskier considering the nature of COVID-19.

The way public transit is being operated in developed countries has changed after the pandemic. Due to concern on health of passengers and nature of COVID-19, it is essential to have physical distancing of 2 m wherever possible. In Calgary, one of the major city in Canada, the physical distancing is considered critical even when using public transportation. In Calgary, passengers are requested to use alternate seats only, to keep distance with other passengers. Public vehicle operator regularly disinfects the most used areas few times a day.

For operating public vehicles, physical distancing should be given priority which seems only possible in large capacity buses like Sajha Yatayat, Orange Yatayat, Mayur Yatayat and so on. In the first phase of lifting lockdown, only large buses should be allowed to operate considering they are willing to maintain the physical distancing. This might seem inapplicable for underdeveloped country like Nepal; however, this can be taken as an opportunity to change our travel behavior. For example, those who can reach to their destination by walking or cycling, should be encouraged to do so to reduce overcrowding in public vehicles.

After the end of this pandemic, will transportation sector be in same condition as before? Will people adopt work or study from home?

As large proportion of public transportation is run by private-own companies, some sort of government subsidies is required to operate transportation efficiently. Another opportunity for us is to start the use of e-ticket. In Nepal, the e-ticketing system is not popular as of now, though Sajha Yatayat had initiated few years back. Currently, passengers directly pay their ride fare in person. This may not be feasible as this is too risky for a possible transmission to bus operators. We should seize this pandemic as an opportunity to introduce contactless ticketing system like smart cards or pre-paid tickets that could be brought online or from stores.

After the end of this pandemic, will transportation sector be in same condition as before? Will people adopt work or study from home? Can we take this pandemic as an opportunity to change our behavior and travelling pattern? We believe this is possible with proper planning from concerned authority and support from the public.

About Authors:

Tiwari:

Transportation Specialist, Office of Investment Board Nepal (OIBN) and Chairperson of Safe & Sustainable Travel Nepal (SSTN)

Email: [email protected]

Mishra:

Transportation Engineer; works as Research Assistant at University of Calgary, Canada

Email: [email protected]

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