From Crisis to Opportunity: an Intimate Conversation with PTOs on Public Transit Ridership

Interview conducted by Stephanie Hagen, Director, Urban Mobility Company
If you enjoy this interview, don’t miss out on the upcoming Virtual Urban Mobility Workshop, Commuting With COVID-19: Keeping You Safe With Data. Register for free here!

It comes as no surprise that public transit ridership has been significantly down in cities around the world since the outbreak of COVID-19. According to Moovit’s Public Transit Index, ridership has decreased between 60 to 90% in most major cities and urban areas, and while this drop is indeed dramatic, Public Transportation Operators are now facing their biggest challenge yet: ensuring safe and efficient transportation as lockdowns ease up but the threat of the virus still remains.

According to Alon Shantzer, VP of International Sales as Moovit, his company has been incredibly busy over the last few weeks using data to advise governments and PTOs  in countries such the UK, Israel, France, the US and Italy on how to prepare their public transportation systems for “day zero” post-quarantine:

What we’ve gathered over the last few months is that even during a crisis, public transit remains a lifeline for those who need to travel, therefore cities, public transit agencies, and operators need to adapt quickly, and pivot to a more flexible service model without missing a beat. The response to COVID-19 (or any situation that may cause ridership to decrease on a wide scale) requires a multi-tiered approach that supports public transit riders, agencies, and their communities. This includes having the tools to communicate accurate information to the public quickly, in addition to reflecting the changes in transit schedules and lines swiftly.

Using Moovit’s Public Transit Index as a springboard to discuss the challenges and complexities PTOs across the globe are facing, we organised a special Zoom call with

Philippe Bois, Performance Group Director of Keolis (a private operator of public transport systems in cities across 12 countries), Anna Craciun, an Innovation Officer for Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM),  Pedro Homem de Gouveia, a Senior Policy & Project Manager – Coordinator Governance & Integration – Coordinator Safety & Security at Polis Network (Europe’s largest network of cities and regions cooperating for innovative transport solutions) and Hagen Seifert, Transport Planner, Hamburg HVV.

During our hour-long conversation, they discussed the astounding impact that the pandemic has had on public transport systems, what they believe are the most important messages for the public to understand, and how cities can turn the current crisis into an opportunity to change urban mobility for the better.

What are the current trends in public transit ridership in your city/cities?

Public Transit Ridership in Melbourne (click to enlarge)

Philippe Bois (Keolis): The trend is very clear and ridership has decreased from 80 to 92% everywhere.  For example, in Melbourne where we are operating the tramway, is still operating 100% of services and recent ridership patterns are the same, i.e it has decreased by 90%. Compared to other cities where  tramway services have been reduced by up to 70%, we see the level of ridership is the same as it is in Melbourne, so ridership has decreased to the same extent irrespective of level of services

We also operate in Shanghai, which is interesting because they are now in a more advanced stage compared to European cities in restarting their services. The ridership is now 60 – 70% of the pre-crisis ridership and it is plateauing. We are expecting that when people come out of lockdown and start moving for work, we will see this level of ridership in other cities around the world.

Public Transit Ridership in Greater Manchester (click to enlarge)

Anna Craciun (TfGM): Ridership levels across the whole public transport network in Greater Manchester have significantly reduced, in line with the introduction of the lockdown in the UK on 23rd March. Each mode has been affected differently and operators have taken a range of measures to respond to the crisis, based on their customer base. Rail services are currently running on a reduced timetable, with around 45% of its services prior to COVID-19 and, where possible, timetables have been adjusted to suit key workers. Rail patronage has fallen by 95% and so our overall patronage levels are much lower than in any other cities I have been speaking to over the last couple months including Antwerp, Barcelona and Alba Iulia. Bus patronage has fallen to 10% of its usual levels and timetables have also been reduced to around 45% of their former services.

The number of passengers on the Metrolink, Greater Manchester’s tram service has reduced by 95% across the network and the number of journeys has dropped from 140, 000 per day to less than 10,000 per day. Service frequency is now reduced from every 12 minutes across all lines to 20 minutes across all lines. Despite the reduction, travel pattern during the week have remained similar to those prior to the lockdown with highest demand during the AM and PM peak. Metrolink is also offering free travel for all essential journeys made by key workers, for example NHS employees.

Public Transit Ridership in some POLIS member cites: Lisbon (pink), Barcelona (Green), Milan (Purple) (click to enlarge)

Pedro Homem de Gouveia (POLIS): From a strategic perspective, we feel that these ridership numbers have a huge impact on the financial health of PTOs and we have to be aware of not how these numbers are collected but what they mean now and what they mean moving forward. If our goal is sustainability, than these numbers mean two things for us here at  Polis:

One, If this was a stress test on urban mobility systems, then public transport passed it with honor.  It showed that it is the backbone of urban transportation and it has behaved like the national banks or the federal reserves in the middle of an economic crisis. It is what stood up. We are puzzled about these “death announcements” for public transport and we must be careful about spreading them or they will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The second point I’d like to make is that coming out of the lockdown, we’ll need to see the numbers in the next three, six, nine months to understand fully what is happening. However, maybe more important than speculating about what will happen, is knowing what we want because we can shape the outcome of the crisis and that’s our biggest challenge now. It’s a bit like what the French philosopher Henri Bergson said, ‘the future is not what is going to happen, but what we are going to do about it’ and that’s pretty much our focus right now at Polis, to make this crisis become an opportunity to reshape urban mobility.

Public Transit Ridership in Hamburg (click to enlarge)

Hagen Seifert (Hamburg HVV): In Hamburg we have also seen a plunge of ridership down to 30% of its usual figure from before. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, Germany has not imposed a full lockdown and many manufacturers and factories have remained open, so in Hamburg we decided to maintain almost the full timetable. We have been operating at more than 80% of the usual service all the time and this has been done for two reasons. The first is that we want to give the remaining passengers space so that they can practice social distancing on board our busses and trains and we also didn’t want to give an extra burden to those front line workers in hospitals.

 We also had services which were almost the same passenger ridership due to certain starting or shifting times in companies and so we added extra services there to give them more space for social distancing. Starting last week, measures in Germany are gradually being eased and so that means that this week the tip on our transit ridership graph is pointing up, we are close to hitting 40 percent of usual ridership now. So far, we have gotten through the pandemic pretty well and by next week we’ll be back by 100% service.

From your perspective, what is the single most important part of public transport that Covid-19 is forcing you to address?

Philippe Bois: The key issue for us is the safety of the passenger, especially as we expect that the ridership will grow again in the next few days. In France, the lockdown will be progressively eased starting next Monday (11 May) and so we are expecting more passengers in our busses, metros and tramways. What we have asked public authorities to implement, and which they have agreed to do, is that masks be made mandatory for people using public transport.

I think the big issue for us is how we deal with social distancing since it is a very complex issue when you look at how it can be concretely organised. We have asked the French government to change the regulations to ensure that we cannot be held accountable from a legal point of view. We don’t want to be in the position when it is us who needs to force people to respect social distancing, or physically stop people at the entry of the station or from getting on a bus or metro. The answer is about education and so we are launching a huge communication campaign in our busses at the stops, in our metros etc, calling for people to respect social distancing and recommending hygiene measures.

Anna Craciun: Emptier roads due to reduced commuting by car and public transport have resulted in an increase in road regulation disobediences, such as speeding. People are seeing an emptier road as an opportunity to reduce their travel time through speeding. I believe that this has been putting additional pressure on our response services including fire services and police force who are pivotal to GM’s response plan. Cross-sectoral and cross-organisations working has been key throughout the response to the COVID-19 crisis. Some major towns across the UK have retrofitted existing large convention centres to build “pop-up” hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients, branded as “Nightingale” hospitals. More recently, it has been announced that cycling and walking initiatives in Greater Manchester will receive a £5m boost to support social distancing by increasing space for active travel.

What’s been really important and prevalent throughout the whole situation is communication with the public. There are countless information sources out there and so making sure that we keep our public messaging up to date in this dynamic situation has been a key activity for TfGM. Colleagues in the communications departments are now working 24/7 maintain a constant stream of messages that remind customers of social distancing and to discourage them from taking any unnecessary journeys. We have a designated webpage with all of our travel advice and service changes and we also send special messages to large employers

Pedro Homem de Gouveia: The way we look at it all is that we are dealing with a “Black Swan” so this big unexpected crisis which, in hindsight, should have been expected. The thing about a Black Swan is it forces us to look into our blind spots where systematic failures and challenges hide. So I’d like to point to two main issues which are not new, but have been made more serious by this crisis:

One of them is public financing. The Public Transport Operators have kept running with lower demand and reduced capacity and now with higher maintenance costs. So this pretty much blew a hole in the balance sheets of all these PTOs.  If nothing is done this will leave scars in the financial health of these operators. If we want to be able to promote sustainable urban mobility and also enable the emergence of other sustainable private operators, we do not want our main horse that is pulling the sustainable mobility wagon to be limping. So, we will have to go back and really look at a way of helping PTOs recover from this. It won’t be easy and it’s one of the biggest and least talked about challenges.

The other classic public transport challenge that this crisis made more evident is frequency. This quarantine was lived from, if I may, a very middle class perspective when we talk about the “rise of teleworking” and the fear of taking public transport. There are millions of low-income workers who have no other option and as demand comes back but we still have a dramatically reduced capacity of public transport, what’s going to happen? If we want to increase capacity in public transport, we must increase frequency and to do so, we must dramatically reduce congestion.  There is no other way to do it. We have to cut access to private cars, increase opportunities for sustainable multimodal alternatives. Right now, one of the key measures that many European cities are offering is more walking and cycling space since that space is taken away from private cars and that will help public transport’s frequency.

Hagen Seifert: Our main goal is to maintain a good image for public transport and ensure people do not have a mindset that ‘public transport is a virus spreader and to be avoided’. We have of course put in place new cleaning and hygiene measures, but there are a lot of discussions going on because standards vary from country to country. People see images on TV and see that Moscow, for instance, is using disinfectant and questioning why we are not. We respond by saying we are using enhanced cleaning but not disinfectant as that might harm people who are allergic. So there is a lot of talking and explaining in order to get people’s mindset adapted. Even during this pandemic, people are still more likely to die in a car accident than of a virus caught on public transport.

The other point we need to address is the social distancing. People will demand more space and we can’t continue as we did years prior with the idea that public transport is more efficient or generates less loss if you cram more people into the existing space. This is not an easy task because we can’t buy busses right away and our infrastructure has certain constraints that cannot be eased right away. We also have some competition in Hamburg because all the recent sunny weather has encouraged people to use bikes. We are pushing people to use both bikes and public transport, but at the same time we have not found a way to reduce space dedicated to cars, creating a competition for space on streets for road lanes either for bikes or public transport. We need to communicate that we are not “enemies”, but we are working for the same goal and we have to tell people that switching to cars is not the solution.

What are some innovative initiatives or measures your city, organisation or network is implementing to guarantee safe and efficient transportation during the post lock-down period and for the years to come?

Philippe Bois: We can see now that among the 15 countries we are operating in, it has become a very innovative period and there are two innovations in particular that our PTAs are adopting and that we are happy to help accelerate. The first is that for many bus systems,  it is no longer possible to buy tickets on board. The second is that locally, our teams are testing a lot of solutions to improve social distancing and hygiene. This includes stickers on the seat and marks on the ground. One that struck me recently is that some companies are offering a cleaning solution that keeps surfaces cleaner and disinfectant for longer than ever before.  At the moment we are scanning all this innovation and detecting the ones that can be used everywhere.

Anna Craciun:  I think one of the most important things coming out of this is making us change the way we look at planning and our strategies. Transport Strategies are often divided into short (0-5 years), medium (5-15 years) and long term (15+ years). The COVID-19 response is planned against different timescales of three days, three months, three years so that innovation can be accelerated and we can start incorporating lessons learned from completed projects into our response planning and delivery. For example, in response to COVID-19, we have developed a lot of scenarios based on sociodemographic analysis for our 2040 Transport Strategy and personas identified through innovation programmes.  These personas were created when we were conducting studies on autonomous vehicles and during our proof of concept work on Mobility as a Service. Therefore, this is a positive way to upscale our findings during innovation trials and provide a more in-depth perspective of customer needs.

Currently there are several innovation funds that are being released by the UK government. I am working with local networks of academia and SMEs to submit proposals for innovation trials and projects that can be delivered in three months to less than a year to provide insight into COVID-19 response action. Most recently we submitted a proposal with Humanising Autonomy to deploy their cloud analytics software, normally used for autonomous vehicles, to understand citizens’ behaviours and potential impacts of social distancing on public transportation and infrastructure usage. I think a lot of people are noticing the benefits of their change in behaviour and travel patterns as roads are quieter and the air quality has improved, making it more pleasant to walk, cycle and exercise outdoors. As mentioned before, the £5m fund for active travel should hopefully shape this into a  “green revolution” for Greater Manchester and we will continue to see these positive trends in behaviour following the lockdown. 

Pedro Homem de Gouveia: I would like to announce that today (06 May), Polis Network wrote to the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission and the EU Commissioner for Transport. We wrote to them along with 12 other major transport and mobility and called on them to develop a European post-Covid-19 exit strategy that addresses safe and sustainable urban mobility. Sure, this could just be one more letter, but the point is that we are working together.  People from the road safety sector are teaming up with people working in sustainability and that is a trend you’ll see more and more going forward, which is important for governance in cities and for policy making in the transport sector.

The letter contains a message that we’ll be repeating in the weeks to come. We don’t want to jump out of an unexpected health crisis back into other pre-existing, foreseeable health crises such as pollution and a car-fixed transportation model depriving people of physical activity. And of course we also said that there will be no vaccine for the climate crisis and while the window of opportunity to change has not become wider, the current pandemic is presenting a unique opportunity. We at Polis Network are becoming more assertive and we are no longer talking about promoting modal shift, but about accelerating it. We’ll be looking at the research coming out in the coming months about the true role that air pollution has not only in the spread of covid but especially in it’s lethality. So from a lobbying perspective this is the innovative measure we took just today.

Hagen Seifert: The “medicine” we have been using to “treat” climate change, is also proving  very helpful for fighting COVID-19. Last year, we made a huge step switching from demand-oriented planning to more service-oriented planning to increase capacity and make people feel more comfortable using public transport so they would be convinced to switch over from using a car. This has increased space on our busses and trains which is exactly what we need right now. We also have started a project to introduce a touchless payment system which before was difficult to implement because Germans love cash and don’t like using cards and mobile payments.  Back in December we were still hesitant to stop selling tickets on bus routes and now we are wondering if we will ever resume it.

In Hamburg, we are also trying lots of on-demand riding services. For example Moia, a subsidiary of VW, wanted to completely stop their on-demand riding service because of lack of ridership. The authority here used that to encourage them to integrate into the public transit system and now they run additional night services for our customers. This fills a gap in our network and shows private operators the benefit of planning a system with us. Another point we see is that there is a higher awareness by companies and schools that they need to rethink mobility by considering more flexible working schedules and home office solutions. If we can eliminate peak hours caused by traditional 9 to 5 office working schedules we can develop a mobility for the future which is also sustainable.  

This conversation has been edited and condensed


If you enjoyed this interview, don’t miss out on the upcoming Virtual Urban Mobility Workshop, Commuting With COVID-19: Keeping You Safe With Data. Register for free here!

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