Hemant Tiwari, Suman Mishra
COVID-19 pandemic, which is leading world towards the worst recession in a century has affected almost every sector of an economy. Public transportation is also hugely affected by it. Lots of question has been raised about the future of public transportation. The most prominent one concerns the nature of public transportation after COVID 19.
As transportation is a derived demand, with resumption of economic activities, public transport will also start again but with less demand. It is assumed that the present lockdown has affected more than 4 million transit users nationwide. As per Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport (MoPIT), 2011, the trip rate was 1.41 per person and public transportation share of the total trip was 27.6% at 2011. With this trip proportion, there are more than 1 million passenger patronage of public transportation of Kathmandu valley. The public transportation trip share is expected to decrease to 23.6% by 2022 and with this pandemic, it is expected to fall even further.
Will people shift towards individual modes of transport like car or bikes to be away from the generally crowded transit services? According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in Guangzhou in March 2020, only 34% of previous metro and bus commuters were using public transit systems, while 40% shifted to private cars, taxis and ride-hailing, and the rest to walking and biking. If people shift towards individual modes of transport, can the existing road facilities handle them as they are already facing traffic congestion problem? It may be too soon to answer these questions.
Can we take this crisis as an opportunity to revamp our transportation system? Will the government and concerned authority decide to operate public transit within the country by themselves? Time will tell where we head towards, as this cannot be achieved in a short period of time. The policies and decisions made today will guide us where we want to be in the future. All our policies and decision should be in line with the popular saying “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, its where the rich use public transportation”.
Due to this pandemic and lockdown, sinking transit ridership has put transit agencies into an immense financial strain. In those countries where the public transportation is run by government agencies, governments are beginning to get involved by providing financial support to the transit agencies. As per the article by Welle and Avelleda in ‘The CityFix’, April, 2020, some nations are intervening to protect public transportation systems from going bankrupt: the U.S. CARES Act included $25 billion in emergency relief for transit agencies, to retain their interest in operation .
In the context of Nepal, the transportation sector is run by private operators. It is expected to have financial loss of around 4 Billion NPR in the two months. According to the Federation of Nepalese National Transport Entrepreneurs, it is not possible for them to operate vehicles for six months even after the lockdown is lifted maintaining the social distancing unless government intervene with some motivating policy. Government needs to intervene somehow to operate public vehicles. Otherwise, considerable number of people who are dependent on mass transit for their daily activities will be affected. Concession on interest; extension of payment schedule and dismissal of insurance for payment period can support the current public transport operator in this crisis.
Public transport operation is a challenge on itself and with this pandemic, it is even more complicated. We must think and act carefully before starting operation of public transportation as there may be possibility of spreading of the virus. It is unlikely that public transportation will be in full operation for next few months. Due to health and safety concern, it is essential to have physical distancing of 2 m and thus vehicle cannot be operated with the current scenario. The vehicular fleet needs to be increased. The vehicles can only be operated with one third to one fourth of their capacity. The major issue will be the operation during the peak hour as it will demand at least double the existing fleet if any other intervention is not adopted.
In short run, school and college buses can be used to supplement the supply side. Reducing the peak hour demand is utmost necessary to balance the supply side. Work from home, online shopping, staggered office time, modal shift to walking and cycling can help reduce the travel demand.
No private operator would like to operate bearing huge loss and thus government investment on the public transportation is must. In most of the countries, transit service is subsidized as it is considered as essential need. In Nepal, till now apart from Sajha Yatayat, there is not any contribution on public vehicles from government sector and thus, this is the right time to take a step forward to either completely own the public transportation system or go in public private partnership. Funding public transit with fares alone has been a major challenge. Thus, government intervention in closing the gap is very much the current need.
Sundar Yatayat and Safa Tempo that ply on Kathmandu valley, and electric rickshaw that run on major cities are among the few electric vehicles being used as public transportation around the country. Promoting their use with proper government policy is must to promote green mobility. Providing free electricity at night for charging purpose will be one of the subsidy policies that may sustain the operation even if it has to operate with one third of its capacity. This will not only promote electric mobility; but will also contributes to the livelihood of the people who are indirectly and indirectly engaged with those vehicles.
Furthermore, additional study is required to see the possibility of revisiting fare rate, if government cannot provide enough subsidy to the operators, but this is not a recommended as passengers may be unwilling to pay more to use transit services. Department of Transport Management (DoTM) is working on formulation of transport operating guidelines and implementation mechanism. But the major challenge is on the effective implementation. Even if the government starts subsidy program, its implementation and monitoring is the major challenge.
In addition to increase in vehicle fleet, use of technological advancement is also necessary. It is time to go with smart card and cashless payment for public transport as far as possible. Sajha Yatayat had introduced this system before but failed. The operator can also encourage people to use traceable payment methods like Prabhu Pay, E-Sewa, Khalti etc. instead of direct cash in the first stage. These payment methods not only cut down exposure risks to bus operators, but also help local authorities trace possible contacts and quickly inform passengers and relevant communities if a passenger is diagnosed with COVID-19. People cannot afford different cards for different bus operator, so the card must be compatible to all operators. It not only helps in this situation of pandemic but also helps to identify the number of people using public transportation.
No personal should be allowed to enter the vehicle without protective equipment’s such as masks and goggles. Crew member needs to be trained to prevent cross infection between staffs and vehicles. Every operational bus should be disinfected at least twice a day and more in higher risk key areas such as buses coming to and from airport or bus terminals.
Some countries have been successful in containing the spread of this pandemic. For example, Norway has been successful in controlling the infection and the huge credit goes to transportation management bodies. People could work from their homes in order to minimize the crowds in public vehicles and they were able to maintain the physical distancing of 2m between them. Ticket controls were suspended for more than a month to protect the drivers from the infection. Public transit vehicles were cleaned with disinfectants every night. Similarly, Auckland Transport has updated their mobile application which let the public transport user know how many people are in the bus; the passengers are only allowed to enter the buses from the back door and use AT HOP card to pay and seating maintaining 2m physical distancing.
Provision of better pedestrian and cycle friendly infrastructure will certainly help shift mode towards more sustainable ones. Bicycles and walking not only reduce the congestion but also promote a healthier life. One way to create jobs as well as prioritize transit movement is investment in this sector. This can be achieved through huge investments in mass transit like metro rails or relatively low investments in improving bus services by introducing bus rapid transit, bus only lanes, transit signal priority or queue jumper lanes. With abundant electricity generation expected within the country in few years and high trade deficit due to import of petroleum products; adopting electric vehicles will have significant impact on our economy. The subsidy policy for electric buses need to be further improved and their use should be encouraged.
It is time to help ensure stimulus packages enable cities to not just build back after the coronavirus pandemic, but to build back better making our transportation system more flexible, equitable and resilient.
Transportation Specialist, Office of Investment Board Nepal (OIBN) and Chairperson of Safe & Sustainable Travel Nepal (SSTN)
Email: [email protected]
Transportation Engineer; works as Research Assistant at University of Calgary, Canada
Email: [email protected]
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