Can public transport survive a pandemic?

Swiss Cottage station on the London Underground. Credit: Gregory Smith

Governments are asking people not to use public transport and fare revenue has all but disappeared. Are networks at risk of shutting down? By Francesca Perry

Many major cities are celebrated for their public transport networks. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how a city like London would function without it. But the coronavirus pandemic has put public transport operators in an impossible situation. They must keep networks running, particularly for key workers, and do so with a whole host of new safety measures. But these safety measures necessarily include accommodating far fewer passengers to comply with social distancing, which consequently means huge losses in revenue. How exactly can public transport survive when people aren’t using it?

During lockdowns, public transport ridership dropped off a cliff, decreasing as much as 90% in some places. Although lockdowns are easing – at various paces in different countries – and passengers are slowly returning, social distancing is due to last for the foreseeable future, perhaps even into next year. 

An empty Tube station in London. Credit: Francesca Perry

Clearly, the concepts of mass transport and social distancing don’t go hand in hand. In the UK, it’s been recommended that in order to comply with the two-metre rule, networks can only host 10–15% of normal passenger capacity. But this isn’t exactly being enforced. Transport for London (TfL) has installed signage in the form of posters and stickers, makes regular announcements in stations and issues advice asking people not to travel unless it’s essential. Face coverings may now be mandatory, but there are no mechanisms in place controlling the amount of people using the network, so we may well see passenger numbers exceed that recommended capacity. 

Even if they do, passenger levels won’t return to normal for a long time. Although not everyone is interested in complying with social distancing, many are – and out of fear of spreading the virus will continue to avoid public transport (70% of Londoners are reportedly uncomfortable with the idea of using public transport in the pandemic). Meanwhile, a large majority of people who were allowed and enabled to work from home during lockdowns may keep it that way. 

Inevitably, this unprecedented decrease in passengers means huge fare revenue losses. London mayor Sadiq Khan said fare income decreased by 90% during lockdowns. As the network is mostly funded by fares, this obviously risks being fatal.

That’s where emergency funding comes in. TfL secured a £1.6bn bailout from the UK government, which is due to keep it running until October. But with the network reportedly costing £600m per month to maintain operations right now, and Khan claiming that TfL faces a £3bn funding gap this year, that money may run out quicker than expected.

The challenge becomes how you sustain public transport systems when fare revenue significantly decreases over the long term. Not all public transport networks are funded solely by fares, but many rely on them as their main source of income – as TfL does. What this crisis has revealed is that the fare-based model of funding is by no means a resilient one. And it raises the question of how we should consider our public transport networks: as a business, or as an essential service? 

Certainly, in the short term, cash injections from regional or national governments (or supranational institutions) are required. In England, along with TfL’s bailout, bus operators received £400m of emergency funding. In the US, the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act provided $25bn to transport authorities, though public transport associations such as NACTO and APTA claim that falls short of what is needed. In Germany, the federal government announced €2.5bn for local and urban transport, but transport ministers have said that twice that is needed.

A London bus. Credit: TfL

In the longer term, it seems clear that public transport funding models need to be reviewed and rethought. The amount of government funding that TfL receives has gradually decreased over the last decade – including an annual operating grant from the Department for Transport which ceased in 2018 – consequently making it reliant on fares. Although TfL gets income from operations such as congestion charging, property and advertising, ultimately this makes up a small proportion of its funding. 

France has a payroll tax (versement transport, VT) on companies larger than 11 employees in order to help fund public transport. In Paris, VT provides the largest proportion of funding for public transport (approximately 42% of income), with fares making up a smaller proportion. 

There are good arguments for making public transport free and funding it through a mix of public and private money. Free services – which have been trialled across Europe – would achieve what public transport essentially sets out to do: provide equitable, accessible mobility for all.

The Paris metro is part-funded by a payroll tax. Credit: Chabe01

So why should governments – and taxpayers – shell out to keep public transport running in the long term? Firstly, cities with thriving public transport networks rely on them to keep functioning – economically, socially and environmentally. If TfL shut down tomorrow, the economy would grind to a halt, social inequality and poverty would skyrocket, and the roads would immediately fill with stationary vehicles and toxic pollution. Both amid a climate crisis and a respiratory disease pandemic, air pollution is simply not a viable option for cities.  

But here are some statistics. Worldwide, public transport systems generate approximately 13 million jobs. Economically, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) has reported that public transport brings economic benefits that are roughly five times higher than the money invested in it. 

So we should avoid public transport for now if we can, but not forever. Eventually, the virus will be under control and social distancing will not be a necessary part of daily life. In the meantime, this crisis should convince both governments and the general public of public transport’s long-term critical value.

Francesca spoke about transport and mobility challenges as London emerges from lockdowns on Monocle 24 radio show The Globalist. You can listen to the episode here 


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