Amid the coronavirus crisis, two things must be noted. One: in the absence of a definitive treatment or vaccine, we will have to live with the pandemic for some time. Two: we cannot have an endless lockdown.

With more than 5.6 million confirmed cases and at least 3.5 lakh deaths, as on May 27, countries around the world have used lockdown as a strategy to control the Covid-19 pandemic. However, if economic activity is to be revived, the lockdown has to end.

In India, the fourth lockdown announced on May 17 saw significant relaxations. In the current phase, select economic activities and movement of goods and people are permitted. If the lockdown is extended yet again on May 31, we can expect rules to be further relaxed.

Across the world, cities are using this opportunity to rebuild smarter and more efficient public system. Meanwhile, India is witnessing increased use of personal vehicles. Even associations like the Confederation of Indian Industry are asking employees to use private vehicles.

This is because people fear that shared mobility services do not follow physical distancing and safety protocols. People who cannot afford private transport will not use shared transport, bringing cities to a grinding halt.

In this context, it essential to bring the focus back on shared mobility – be it buses, Metro, or auto-rickshaws – by reinstating trust in these systems. One way to do this is by introducing a Covid-19-safety labelling for public transport, wherein services can use stickers to indicate that necessary precautions and mitigation measures are being followed.

Under this program, the government must develop a Standard Operating Procedure for transport operations. What may these SOPs look like? Here are some recommendations.

Metro Rail

Commuters interact with Metro infrastructure at four main areas – ticketing, security check counters, Automatic Fare Collection gates, and on the train itself. Interaction-based spread in these critical areas can be mitigated through periodic sterilisation of high-contact surfaces. Deep cleaning of touchpoints like seats, railings, and grab handles in coaches, and at stair/escalator railings, elevators, fare collection gates and restrooms should be performed regularly.

Trains and underground stations should be kept ventilated with intermittent-use air-conditioning to maintain the optimum temperature and frequent cleaning of filters after each trip. The use of Metro cards and online QR-based tickets for contactless ticketing will also improve safety. Each door of the coach should be assigned for boarding and alighting to allow a staggered flow of commuters. Additionally, seats and standing spots should be demarcated for use to limit the number of people inside a coach.

A man wearing a protective mask walks past a bus stop in Mumbai. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Bus Transport

Bus commuters interact with three main contact points – bus stops, ticket counters and inside the vehicle. Safe standing distances can be marked out at the bus stops along with queuing for smooth boarding. In cases of buses with two doors, passengers should be allowed to enter and exit only from separately-designated gates.

The bus service operator must allow digital payments to buy tickets, reducing the contact points drastically on the bus. Passengers should be allowed to sit and stand only in the designated locations, based on physical distancing norms.

Routine cleaning and disinfection practices of public transport vehicles will also minimise the spread of disease. Maintaining a temperature of 24-27 degrees Celsius and ensuring relative humidity of 40%-70% through the regular infusion of fresh air is vital for air-condition operations.

Ride Hailing

For ride-hailing services such as Uber and Ola, the most significant risk is the multiplicity of users for any vehicle in a day. Sanitisation of the vehicle and particularly of high-contact surfaces after every trip, will be essential. The vehicle should be deep cleaned at the end of each day, propped with replaceable seat covers and armrest covers to ensure replacement in case of suspected contamination. Additionally, these enterprises would need to perform driver training on disinfecting vehicles to ensure safety is maintained.

The vehicles should be propped with a physical but transparent driver-cabin separator that provides both passenger and driver protection. Additionally, for shuttle bus services, signage should be utilised for demarcation of seats that can be used and those that shouldn’t, to maintain social distancing. Contactless payment methods should be adopted to minimise interaction.

As per the 2011 census, only 16% of people use personal vehicles to travel to work, with 3% using cars and 13% using two-wheelers. Eighteen per cent use shared mobility, 36% either walk or cycle, while the rest 30% live within close proximity of their work place and hence, don’t travel.

It is clear that it is neither technically nor financially possible for everyone to switch to personal vehicle use. Revamping the public transport system and upgrading its safety is, thus, vital to economic recovery.

Amit Bhatt is Executive Director at World Resources Institute India. Prateek Diwan is a Senior Project Associate at World Resources Institute India. Sudeept Maiti is a Project Manager at World Resources Institute India.