In many cities, public transport never shut down during the pandemic, and many people relied on it to reach essential jobs and services every day
This fear of transit may ultimately be more damaging than the potential threat of riding it
Early evidence from Paris and Vienna show that the pandemic-risk of public transport may be overblown, says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. Sadik-Khan, who advises cities around the world in her role as the head of the Global Designing Cities Initiative, says India’s megacities like Mumbai and Delhi can adopt simple strategies to open up mass transport to everyone. Edited excerpts:
Cities around the world have opened up, but public transport is still largely shut. In Delhi, the metro has been closed for 3 months now. Is there a viable way to open up public transport safely?
There’s so much that we don’t know about the coronavirus and how it spreads. But we’ve seen enough new evidence to suggest that public transport hasn’t been the super-spreader that many have assumed. In many cities, public transport never shut down during the pandemic, and many people relied on it to reach essential jobs and services every day.
There was a lot of concern generated by an MIT study in April that claimed subways seeded the pandemic in New York, but that thesis hasn’t held up. The study was based on postal-code overlays with subway stations, not on contact tracing or even confirming if patients had taken transit. But people don’t read methodologies, and these findings and official warnings to avoid crowds and enclosed places have scared people and may hold them back from returning to transit.
This fear of transit may ultimately be more damaging than the potential threat of riding it. There is no recovery without transit. Switching even a fraction of bus and train trips to driving would bring intense traffic congestion, pollution and traffic danger that would be disastrous for cities.
Which cities are adopting the best strategies and what’s working? What are these strategies?
Winning back passengers will have as much to do with fear management as transportation planning. Transit agencies like those in Delhi and Mumbai have to reassure passengers with high-profile cleaning regimens and strong health messaging campaigns. Universal mask-wearing can help make the system safer. Masks are already common in Asian cities, and that alone can make a huge difference. Cities in China and Korea require masks at all times or when metro trains are full.
There is new evidence from Paris and Vienna where they couldn’t find any coronavirus clusters traceable to transit trips. If public transport had played a key role in spreading the virus, then we would also have seen huge outbreaks in cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo, which are dense, transit-dependent cities. Cities in Asia that have reopened their transport systems, like Seoul, haven’t seen infection spikes.
There are a lot of reasons to be cautious and people’s concerns are understandable. But the evidence shows that there’s no reason to be more concerned with the safety of transit than with the places where you are travelling to and from. We have more facts now than we did when transit systems started winding down in March and April. Transit agencies have to take strong, visible steps to manage passengers’ fears and win them back.
Among vehicle manufacturers, there is already a surge of expectation that covid could induce a large-scale shift to private mobility. What could be the degree of this shift and what will be the consequences?
I don’t think cars will come to the rescue. Given the scope of the economic downturn and with nearly 300 million people out of work globally, it’s unclear how many people are feeling confident about making a major purchase like a vehicle.
Cities shouldn’t wait to see what happens and watch if people start to drive. They should take steps to win passengers back to transit. A first step to avoiding a mobility meltdown will be for cities to reclaim roadway lanes from cars and repurpose them for people to walk, bike and take buses. If we surrender the road and allow cars to reclaim the space, it will mark the greatest mobility failure and missed opportunity of our age.
What is the best-case scenario for a city in a post-pandemic world? What are the broad measures that urban areas can take to survive and thrive during the pandemic?
We need a revolutionary reclaiming of street space for people on a scale that we’ve never seen before and I think it could mark a historic turning point for cities. Transportation as we know it has disappeared. Cities have the power to decide what replaces it.
The almost daily road reclamations (for bike lanes and walking spaces) happening in Milan, in Paris, in London, in Mexico City or Bogota shows that these aren’t just emergency actions. They’re strategies for a long-term economic recovery and prosperity that won’t just outlive the pandemic, they will define the way the cities look, feel and function for decades if not centuries to come.
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