The effect of COVID-19 on the public’s use and perception of public transit was dramatic at the onset of the pandemic. A study in the US, for example, found that rail ridership had declined by 90% and bus ridership was down by 75% by the end of March 2020. Even though public transport use is climbing back up around the world — The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, for instance, reports about two million daily passengers on its subways compared to about 5.5 million before the pandemic — the effects of the pandemic seem to be lingering. 

In a Traveller Sentiment Survey in 2020, 52% of participants said they feel uncomfortable using public transit, while 41% of those who use mass transit regularly said they would use it less. With many workplaces now shifting to remote or flex work, commuter numbers have also declined through that alone.

But for those people who still need it, public transportation needs to be safe and welcoming, to ensure that people feel encouraged and incentivized to return.

Why boost public transport use?

Even though the benefits of public transport are well-documented and well-established, getting people out of their cars and onto buses remains a challenge in car-centric areas.

But passenger cars are a major polluter, making up 60.7% of total CO2 emissions from road transport in Europe. A high proportion of private vehicles also translates to a massive amount of road space being taken up by cars that are often largely empty, while public transport vehicles carry many more people at once — if and when people use them. 

Every car-owning person switching to public transport for their daily commute would already signify a reduction in the household’s carbon footprint.

Increasing the share of public transport can reduce traffic and weaken dependence on private vehicles. This, in turn, has many benefits, including reducing traffic congestion and pollution.

Here is an overview of solutions that public transport authorities can implement to encourage the use of public transit.

Increase passenger safety and peace of mind

Safety and comfort are a concern for riders even in non-pandemic times, so convincing people that return to public transit is safe must be a key consideration for authorities and service providers.

As public transport vehicles are essentially small, enclosed spaces, there are concerns of COVID-19 transmission that must be addressed for the sake of public health and individual safety. A lot depends on how crowded and well-ventilated a bus or train is, and how much distance people can realistically keep between each other.

According to one survey conducted in Istanbul, passengers feel uncomfortable when they perceive there’s less than a 40% probability of getting a seat. It is up to transit agencies to monitor vehicle loads and consider changes to decrease crowding. 

Transport authorities all over the world have been experimenting with ways to increase passenger safety and comfort, including solutions like denser air filters, UV light, and seat configurations that allow for more space between passengers, such as those piloted by Bay Area Rapid Transit in California.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is updating its HVAC system in Boston, and the MTA has installed dividers between bus operators and passengers for added safety. Other possible solutions include vending machines that sell face masks, gloves, wipes, and hand sanitizer. 

Optimize schedules 

Public transport schedules are a top priority for passengers. A whopping 92% of respondents to a 2020 survey in Germany cited punctuality as a top priority, while 80% said frequency is very important. 

Authorities and operators need to make sure that schedules are meeting needs and expectations. In a post-pandemic world, this task is particularly complex, with considerations needing to be made for social distancing to prevent packed vehicles.

Demand-responsive transport (DRT)

Demand-responsive transport allows for increased flexibility and accessibility in public transport. Passengers, especially in rural areas, are able to request rides according to their needs. For public transport operators, the on-demand service increases efficiency by dispatching a vehicle with the appropriate seating capacity.

Improve ticketing systems

Streamlined ticketing systems are a key element of transportation efficiency. Slow-moving and crowded ticket lines are off-putting for passengers, while contactless ticketing options are becoming an expectation. 

Contactless payments

Research has shown that if passengers don’t have to pre-purchase tickets, they are willing to sacrifice knowing the exact cost of travel in exchange for the convenience. People also use public transport more confidently when the need for exact change is eliminated. Contactless payments in public transport make the passenger experience more seamless while also removing cash from the equation and cutting down face-to-face interaction.

Account-based ticketing

Account-based ticketing (ABT) is a fare-collection system where travelers can use various light media to pay for public transport. ABT solutions, such as those provided by Ridango, support closed-loop and open-loop travel cards, contactless bank card payments, mobile ticketing and QR codes, with maximum flexibility in fare calculations, contributing to a drastically improved customer experience.

Mobile ticketing

Mobile ticketing enables the use of mobile phones for ticket purchase and validation, eliminating the need to carry cash or even own a travel card. This is another solution that increases public safety by minimizing human contact on public transport, while also contributing to the overall passenger experience and convenience.

Reduce emissions 

The general public is becoming increasingly aware of sustainability in public transport. Public transport authorities and service providers must take into account public perception of the negative impacts of diesel buses on air quality and climate. 

Aside from the use of zero-emission buses, authorities can invest in more sustainable solutions that include sustainability boosters such as ticketing systems that do not require printing out tickets or travel cards.

Real-time travel information

Real-time info helps customers plan their journeys more accurately. Information can be presented on on-board displays, but also on platform and sideway screens, as well as in mobile and web apps. 

As a post-pandemic measure, the MBTA shared live data about how crowded its buses are to riders — on a smartphone app and on in-station screens — allowing passengers to make informed decisions before getting on a bus.

In conclusion…

Wide adoption of public transport is a win-win-win for passengers, local authorities, and the environment. While it’s natural that a force majeure in the form of a pandemic has reduced public transit use, there are ways to make public transport the number one choice for people to get around safely and sustainably.

To make public transport services more attractive, cities and public transport solution providers should take every opportunity to ensure a high quality of service on public transport systems.