Mumbai: As India’s cities gradually revive their public transport services halted during the lockdown, technology-enabled systems, the optimal use of existing capacities and staggered commuting can help ensure social distancing and crowd management to prevent the spread of COVID-19, experts tell IndiaSpend.

With the emphasis on physical distancing and as a measure to save time, this would mean increased use of automatic and digital payment systems, and mobile-phone based applications to provide alerts on vehicular traffic and crowd congestion, experts said. Daily, weekly and monthly passes at lower prices across various transport options would encourage greater use of public transport.

Mobility patterns in India witnessed a change during the prolonged lockdown, with travel restrictions and freeze on transport facilities. Movement of people to public transport hubs such as subways and bus and train stations fell by 52%, according to a May 16 COVID-19 Community Mobility Report by Google. Mobility to workplaces declined by 41%, and to places of residence rose by 22%.

“This is a big opportunity for the public transport system to move towards automatic and digital payment systems,” Madhav Pai, India director for the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities, told IndiaSpend. “Many major cities have resisted opting for automatic or digital payments over the years. Use of digital payments will stop cash leakage in the system and will provide data that will help plan our systems in a much better way.”

The challenge is to resume public transport systems without undoing the benefits of the lockdown that enforced social distancing. “If you are not able to maintain social distancing, you run the risk of losing all that you have achieved so far,” said Om Srivastava, an infectious disease expert based in Mumbai. There could be a spurt in cases and new containment areas may come up with unplanned resumption of public transport services, he warned.

In normal times, India’s public bus sector operated 170,000 buses that transport 70 million people every day, while metro services are functional in 10 cities, having a daily ridership of 4.6 million, with 525 stations and an operational network of over 700 km.

Digitising systems

In March 2019, the central government launched the National Common Mobility Card (NCMC) or the One Nation One Card (ONOC) for transport mobility based on the debit/credit/prepaid card platform, which can be used across segments such as metro, bus, suburban railways, toll, parking, smart city and retail.

In May 2020, the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited called for tenders to introduce NCMC, in a move to encourage cashless travel. In December 2019, the government had informed parliament that 11 transport agencies in the country were using NCMC facilities.

Digital payment services will discourage physical exchange of currency while purchasing bus and train tickets, said Deepak Baindur, a transport and mobility consultant and former assistant professor in the faculty of Planning and Public Policy, CEPT University, Ahmedabad. The ONOC should be “extensively implemented” across cities in all public transport services, he said.

Likewise, the government in December 2019 made implementation of FASTags mandatory for all vehicles to collect fees at toll plazas in a move to ensure swift movement of vehicles, saving fuel, time and to avoid traffic jams.

Baindur also proposed solutions similar to Google Maps on mobile apps that can indicate crowd congestion levels as well as forecast passenger waiting time in buses or trains at each stop or station that can be useful for commuters to make informed choices. This can be done through CCTV cameras (by measuring crowd density and calculating real-time data), Intelligent Transportation System (advanced electronic/wireless-based transportation technologies for safety, communication and mobility systems), telematics and social media platforms including mobile apps to communicate, said Baindur.

The government is implementing the “Integrated Sustainable Urban Transport Systems for Smart Cities”, across three smart cities--Bhubaneswar, Coimbatore, and Kochi. Under this project, standard operating procedures have been compiled for the bus transport system post the COVID-19 lockdown to ensure safety measures.

Mumbai’s challenge

Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, has been the worst affected city nationwide, with more than 48,500 cases and 1,636 deaths as of June 7, 2020, more than any other city or state in India. Getting the city back to normalcy will be critical to the country’s economy. This is a challenge for a city with a population of over 12.8 million that is largely dependent on public transport for commuting.

Mumbai’s local trains carry over 8 million passengers daily. On its single journey, a local train carries about 3,500 people when it is supposed to carry 1,800 passengers, Pai of WRI pointed out. During the pandemic, with the need for maintaining social distancing, it should carry only 900 passengers, he estimated.

“Services should be opened up in a systematic way,” said Satish Mathur, former director general of police, Maharashtra and joint commissioner of police (traffic) Mumbai. “The city can be mapped onto grids, identifying office areas and complexes that will operate on alternate days. This is workable and will help minimise overcrowding.”

Maharashtra: Phase-wise opening and easing of restrictions

The Maharashtra government has begun easing restrictions on activities in a phased manner from June 2020. Maharashtra is the worst-hit COVID-19 state in India, with 85,975 total confirmed cases, of which 43,601 active cases. In the first ongoing phase, physical exercises such as cycling, jogging will be permitted in public spaces between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. The second phase that started June 5, permitted markets and shops (except malls) to open on odd-even dates on alternate sides of the street. In the third phase that started June 8, private offices can work with no more than 10% strength. Public and private transport will operate in a limited manner: two-wheelers with no pillion riders; three- and four-wheelers with 1 + 2 passengers. Intra-district buses, but not inter-district, will be allowed with maximum 50% capacity. Metro rail services and international air travel are prohibited except those specified through separate orders.

“The initial phase should be without local trains; we will have to manage public transport by road,” said Ashok Datar, chairperson, Mumbai Environmental Social Network, a think-tank on urban issues focusing on road-based public transport. The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) will have to operate more intelligently with a timetable that should take care of the crowd commuting through local trains, he added.

Per day, BEST operates 2,865 buses carrying 2.2 million passengers, on average. The virus being highly contagious not only poses a risk to passengers but also those providing these services. By May 25, as many as 200 BEST employees--70% of them from the transport division such as drivers and conductors--have tested positive for COVID-19 and half of them have recovered.

If local trains remain closed, the city would need around 5,000 buses to cater to peak-hour demand, said Datar. For this he suggested pressing into service private and school buses. Further, for social distancing, experts suggest reducing the capacity of BEST buses to less than 50%. They recommend setting up “priority bus lanes” for buses to ply faster and make more trips, and implementing the “odd and even rule” for vehicles to manage the traffic on roads.

Though experts have suggested implementing priority bus lanes, similar efforts earlier in cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune have not been very effective, reports suggest.

Maximising capacity

Reopening would essentially mean maximising operations based on what you have immediately,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment. One way to maximise available capacity is to create priority bus lanes that will facilitate greater turnaround time, she suggested.

“We also need to have strategies to cut down on unnecessary travel for reducing the demand on the already stressed system,” Roy Chowdhury said. For this, alternative solutions such as work from home, staggered timings and roster-based attendance should be institutionalised across cities, she said. Walking and cycling for shorter trips should be encouraged with scaling up of infrastructure to further take the pressure off from public transport, she added.

Opening up public transport services

  • Metro railways could hire private security personnel for crowd management. On a pilot basis, fast train services should be resumed first and these should stop only at stations where most commuters board or alight. Slow services can be resumed gradually on assessing demand.
  • The relevant authorities must ensure thermal screening at key bus and railway stations.
  • No standing commutes should be allowed, and alternate seating be practised in trains and buses. Passengers without face masks should not be allowed entry onto buses and railway platforms.
  • Corporate and government offices should hire public bus services on a contract basis for their employees in order to minimise the use of private vehicles and ease traffic jams. Shuttle or feeder bus services should be organised from railway/metro stations to the designated offices in business or industrial areas.
  • Cities should introduce stronger parking regulations in the city with more pay-and-park facilities to manage better traffic.
  • Cities must generate traffic and safety awareness among citizens on the upcoming or ongoing changes.

Source: Interviews with experts

The government on May 7, 2020, shared guidelines drafted by the Delhi-based Central Road Research Institute for safe opening up of roads and vehicles. The report, ‘Public Transport and Feeder Modes considering Social Distancing Norms’, suggested various approaches--redesigning mobility facilities that enable social distancing, reducing demand, capacity enhancement and encouraging social distancing measures on footpaths, metro stations, bus stops, e-rickshaws, autos and taxis.

Cycling, informal services

Limiting the use of local trains and focussing on personal/public transport vehicles could congest city roads and parking lots, said Mathur, especially in Mumbai. Cycling is a good alternative, experts said. “The use of bicycles is a good way to maintain social distancing and also develop a sustainable and better public transport system,” said Pai of WRI, suggesting shared mobility practices once restrictions are eased. If only 50% of a city needs transport, half of them could opt for public transport like trains and buses, 15% could use private or shared vehicles, and the remaining 10% could cycle.

Professionalising informal transit services like shared autos, taxis, e-rickshaws and private minibuses--that facilitate the bulk of public transport services in Indian cities--through technology and financial assistance from the government, could also help cities ease their way back to normalcy, said Shreya Gadepalli, South Asia director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

(Mallapur is a senior analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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