When prime minister Boris Johnson told the country that people could go back to work on May 13, he said they should avoid using public transport unless absolutely necessary. This is a problem: although two-thirds of England commute by car and a further 15 per cent make the trip via motorcycles, bicycles and walking, cities are a very different story.
There were 8.3 billion passenger journeys on public transport across the UK in 2018, according to the Department for Transport, which works out to more than 22 million a day. More than half of Londoners commute via public transport, and though cars are more popular in other British cities, about a quarter of commutes in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool are via public transport. That’s a lot of people who need to find new ways to get to work. Public transport is designed to carry masses of people, and industry insiders say it won’t be possible to get mass transport to comply with social distancing. It just doesn’t add up.
Transport for London (TfL) says it can only manage up to 15 per cent of normal passenger levels and maintain social distancing. According to calculations in The Guardian, maintaining social distancing of two metres on the Northern Line in London would limit trains to 124 passengers. Its official capacity is 910 but in rush hour it reaches a third above capacity, leading to a cramped 8.5 people per square meter. And that’s if the Underground is running its normal schedule of trains. Right now it isn’t, though the plan is to return to 85 per cent this week, from around 60 per cent over the past few weeks.
On the first day lockdown eased, passenger levels climbed from five per cent to seven per cent on the Underground, but reports suggested that even at those low levels it was impossible to stay two metres apart on tube carriages during rush hour.
Numbers of passengers in other cities have fallen by similar figures, with ridership on Manchester’s MetroLink trams down 95 per cent, buses outside London down by 88 per cent, and rail journeys down by 95 per cent. But as in London, capacity has also been reduced, with buses running an emergency service only for key workers, for example.
In short, there’s too many people and not enough space. As Europe returned to work ahead of England, metro networks trialled a variety of measures to solve this issue. Masks are now required on public transport across 50 countries, including Germany and France. Paris has social distancing markers in stations and on trains, asking passengers to leave a seat empty for more space — raising concerns about capacity and revenue from train operators. Denmark is adding extra carriages to trains for social distancing space. New York’s subway is pausing overnight services to allow for cleaning.
In some Chinese cities, travellers have to download and install a registration app before taking public transport, while metro stations in Wuhan are implementing temperature checks. Some buses are restricted to 50 per cent capacity, enforced using on-board cameras, with openable windows retrofitted to vehicles previously cooled via air conditioning. In Hong Kong, one bus company is even using cleaning robots.
Alongside boosting cleaning regimes, hand sanitiser points are being installed at all TfL stations. Beyond the comforting scent of disinfectant, commuters at TfL and rail stations will spot floor stickers to encourage social distancing on concourses and platforms and hear frequent announcements reminding everyone to keep their distance. Station staff are being told to figure out where commuters will have to queue — likely outside — and may organise one-way systems once inside. “It’ll be a bit like going to the supermarket now,” says Marcus Enoch, professor of transport strategy at Loughborough University.
Commuters who manage to board a carriage won’t see alternating seats taped off as they have in some European countries, but the operator organisation the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has said there will be signs reminding people to leave empty seats even if that means standing themselves. For their own safety, staff won’t be passing through train carriages, instead leaving social distancing enforcement to the British Transport Police, which has been handed an extra £1.5m by the Department for Transport to help manage overcrowding. LNER will require a pre-booked reservation on services from 18 May; others will likely follow suit. On the Manchester Metrolink, more double-length trams are being run to boost capacity, and a spare tram has been parked at Victoria station as an extra rest facility for staff.
On buses, front doors were locked in April in a belated move to help protect drivers, after reports of multiple deaths in London alone. Across the UK, the bus operator organisation the Confederation for Passenger Transport (CPT) says seats nearest drivers have been taped off on some buses, with plastic shields installed where they weren’t already in place. Buses are being taken off some routes to add capacity to core parts of the network, adds Enoch. “Around Bedford where I live, for instance, they’re using double deckers instead of single deckers, so that they can keep people separate,” Enoch says.
The bus network will be limited to 20 per cent to 25 per cent its usual capacity, says Tom Bartošák-Harlow, spokesperson for CPT. “Buses are going to look very different to how they did in pre-COVID times,” he says. “A bus that has lots of spaces on it may actually be full with the driver displaying a ‘bus full’ sign and only stopping when somebody wants to get off.”
Skipping busy stops is about all buses can do to limit passengers, notes Simon Jeffrey, policy office at Centre for Cities, especially with passengers no longer boarding by the front door. “Fundamentally, there is a major issue enforcing social distancing,” he says. “There isn’t really an enforcement mechanism there.”
Alongside staying home and washing hands, there’s one thing passengers can do to help when using public transport: wear a mask. However, across buses, national rail and metro services, masks are not yet required, though wearing a “non-medical face covering”, as London mayor Sadiq Khan describes them, is being encouraged for passengers and masks are being offered to staff.
Other ideas have been suggested. Enoch notes that buses and carriages could deploy plastic screens to better separate people when distancing isn’t possible, require windows to be open to increase air flow, or install better air filtration systems. Passengers could be required to pre-book a seat, as LNER is now doing, and only be allowed into a station upon showing a ticket, while ticket prices could be tweaked to more aggressively encourage travel at off-peak times. Companies could set up local hubs for employees to walk to work or organise their own bus services, or private minibus services could find a place, though they’ve previously struggled in the UK.
There’s plenty that can be done, but none of the tactics guarantee passengers or staff won’t be infected — they merely attempt to reduce the risk. “I think it’s going to come down to wearing a mask and hoping,” Jeffrey says.
The simple fact is that public transport networks are designed for mass travel, and for the time being that isn’t healthy. The clear advice remains to stay at home and avoid trains, trams and buses — the solutions in place now are only for those who have no other transport choices, and to protect transport staff. Because of that, and in effort to avoid the air-pollution and traffic of switching commutes to cars, much of the focus has turned to cycling. Transport secretary Grant Schapps promised £2bn for bike lanes and wider pavements, while speeding up the legalisation of electric scooters, and authorities in London revealed plans to create a massive car-free zones in the centre of the city and pledged to raise the congestion charge.
Across the country, local authorities are installing temporary bike lanes using bollards and cones — and it’s not only in the UK. Temporary bike lanes have taken hold from Berlin to Seattle, and in particular across Paris, led by bike-friendly Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
But what works in Paris doesn’t necessarily hold true in London, let alone the UK’s other cities. Central London has 108 people per hectare and outer London 42, according to CBRE, while Paris has 212. “London is not that dense and it means people aren’t living as geographically close to many other things,” Jeffrey says. Indeed, the average commute in London is a 13-mile round trip; each way, that’s roughly 35 minutes of cycling from roughly zone three into the centre for those who are willing or able to do so. Khan acknowledged that in his car-free plans by asking those who must take the train to walk the rest of the way rather than hop on a bus or the tube to complete their journey, if possible.
Still, bike lanes are popping up from Brighton to Glasgow, and that could help reduce passenger numbers to those one-tenth capacity figures deemed necessary for social distancing. But success brings with it another problem: fewer passengers blows a big hole in already troubled budgets. “It’s a question of life and death for public transport,” Jeffrey says.
So far, the government has doled out £400m to bus networks and £1.5bn in loans and grants to TfL. Those funds will keep public transport ticking along for now, but longer term investment in improving or expanding services are likely to disappear, while fares can be expected to rise. “The whole transport world will be dramatically altered by this,” says Enoch.
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