As countries across the world moved towards a “stay at home” approach in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the first casualty was the public transport sector. Transport is a derived demand, which means that people and goods don’t use it just for its sake, but for what it produces.

Services took a hit after countries started allowing only essential travel. According to urban mobility app Moovit, which has over 750 million users, public transport in major United States and European cities has gone down by over 80% since January 15.

At home, the situation is no different. On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked 1.3 billion Indians to stay home for 21 days to slow the spread of Covid-19. The lockdown has since been extended to May 3.

The Indian Railways is operating only 9,000 goods trains. All its 13,500 passenger trains have been halted. In Delhi, operation of Metro and inter- and intra-city buses have stopped. All other transport modes in the country, barring few essential services, are also suspended.

Since India’s major cities have emerged as hotspots for the pandemic, here is what public transport systems will have to do to deal with the post-lockdown situation.

Delhi Metro

The 348-km of the Delhi Metro network, with 310 train coaches, catered to an average of 5.7 million passengers in February. In March, the ridership went down to 4.6 million due to seasonal variations, as well as the Covid-19 outbreak. The area of each broad-gauge Metro coach is 41 sq m, and in peak hour, it can carry over 250 passengers. This is a density of six passengers per sq m.

It was recently reported that the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation augmented services by inducting new trains, increasing number of coaches, and increasing frequency of trains when the passenger density went beyond six persons per sq m. In order to effectively implement social distancing norms, which mandates a one-metre separation, the Metro company will need to increase services by at least six times to manage the current demand.

A commuter takes the Metro in New Delhi. Credit: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Mumbai suburban trains

The suburban train in Mumbai poses an even bigger challenge. The 427-km network caters to over 7.5 million passengers per day. Peak-hour density inside trains is 14-16 passengers per sq m. Factoring in social distancing norms, the suburban railways require expansion of services 14 to 16 times its capacity.

What’s more: peak-hour density around major railways stations exceeds four-five passengers per sq m. Accordingly, infrastructure that facilitate walking to train stations must be augmented to five times its current capacity.

Buses in Bangalore

The leading public transport provider in Bengaluru is the Bangalore Municipal Transport Corporation. With a fleet of 6,000 buses, it collectively caters to almost five million people per day. This means each bus carries around 833 passengers per day.

The passenger area inside a 12-metre bus is around 20 sq m. During peak hours, the average density is four passengers per sqm. Considering social distancing norms, Bangalore Municipal Transport Corporation will need to expand its fleet size by four times. That’s over 24,000 buses.

Passengers on board a Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus. Credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

New alternatives

As is evident, the country’s existing public transport infrastructure cannot meet current demand while also ensuring social distancing. Moreover, it is unrealistic to expect everybody to have access to private modes of transport.

A possible option is to open up the lockdown gradually or develop an alternative commuting system. Bogota, the capital of Colombia, has converted 100 km of city streets into cycle lanes to reduce the load on its bus systems. Mexico City is planning to quadruple its cycle network to reduce the pressure on its metro. Budapest, Hungary’s capital, is creating cycle lanes as a safe alternative for the commute as the city has seen a 90% drop in public transport use.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that what was once impossible is now reality. Cities around the world are rethinking mobility choices by using their streets as testing grounds for this change. Recycling cities will not only be beneficial for public transport but for overall mobility as well.