Opinion: Prof. Shivanand Swamy on transport post COVID-19

Blog CoE-UT


COVID-19 has put a temporary halt on mobility across the country. Generally the sense is that the pandemic has resulted in significant decline in travel demand. But since the easing of the lockdown by Government of India, some travel has resumed. Local Governments and transport agencies have started operations of public transport services while following guidelines for commuter safety. Prof. Shivanand Swamy, Director COE-UT, in this interview shares his insights on short-term impacts of the pandemic with respect to preparedness and management and also how the pandemic may result in lasting changes in travel patterns in cities.

Commuting Safely Post Lockdown
The Government of India has clearly laid out post-lockdown guidelines. All citizens need to adhere to these guidelines very strictly. Whether travelling with family or alone, one must have masks on, all the time. If travelling by air, wear face protection screens if possible. Hand gloves are important too, especially when using public transport. People should maintain social distancing at all times and be responsible to not travel if they have symptoms like cough, cold or fever. 

On the other side, service providers are responsible for ensuring commuter safety. Public transport agencies should enforce social distancing inside the vehicle and also at the bus stations. This means marking of alternative seats that need to be kept vacant. No standing should be allowed. In AC buses, the filters need to be checked and cleaned and there should be a mechanism for ensuring that adequate fresh air comes in. Buses should be sanitized, preferably after every trip. Later this could be phased to twice a day and then subsequently once a day. Health condition of bus drivers and other staff should be monitored on a daily basis. 

Prioritizing Streets For People
Indian streets have always seen high pedestrian activity. Over a period of time vehicles have taken over most of the street space and the footpaths have been reduced to the narrowest possible width. A ½ meter strip on side of the road cannot be a footpath! Taking COVID as an opportunity, cities need to start re-examining their priorities and bring back streets for people. Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has already started expanding pedestrian space on streets like CG Road. These efforts need to be scaled to streets across the city.

Strategizing Public Transport Operations
To maintain social distancing norms, Ahmedabad will need double the amount of buses (if not more!). This level of scale-up won't be possible immediately. So public transport operations could be tied with the unlocking strategy. The city is considering opening of shops, industries and commercial establishments on an alternate basis or at reduced capacities. If the demand is managed, public transport can cater to it safely. Demand management strategies could be considered even in the long term. Typically public transport runs empty for off peak hours and is overburdened during peak hours. Could there be different time of opening for different industries? Could working days be different?  Currently close to 75% population in Indian cities relies on public transport for work related commutes. I think this is the right time to think about making public transport safer but also more efficient and reliable.

Long Term Shifts in Travel Patterns
I believe the pandemic will bring lasting changes in urban mobility. If we get used to doing things a certain way, eventually they become habits. Work from home and remote meeting trends are likely to stick around. Earlier, I used to fly frequently to Delhi for high-level meetings with the Ministry. For a one-hour meeting, I would lose an entire day. Now we are used to meeting online. It has become an accepted practice. There also seems to be a common understanding that this way is more efficient and sustainable. So yes, this pandemic might result in lasting social and behavioural changes. But lets ensure that this ‘new normal’ will be a better normal rather than a worse normal. 

Listen to the audio for a detailed interview with Prof. Shivanand Swamy

Your browser doesn't support HTML5 audio. Here is a link to the audio instead.