Is public transportation about to undergo a massive shift?

One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic has been the shift in attitude towards public transportation. Around the globe, we have seen a reluctance from commuters to return to our trains, buses, and trams. Even as restrictions ease and life starts to return to some sort of normal, that reluctance continues. Surveys in the USA have as many as 45 percent of people saying they intend to use public transport less or not at all, with as much as 40 percent saying they will be staying away from taxi and ride-sharing services as well. Suddenly, our public transportation systems have a new priority – public health.

The previous focus of developing reliable public transport that is greener and more fuel-efficient is being replaced by the need to provide commuters with a safe, crowd-free experience. We are not going to get people back to public transport if we can’t provide them with a far safer and more hygienic environment. But that’s not just about giving everything a regular clean and more sanitisation stations dotted around the platforms and inside the vehicles. It requires technology-enabled systems that can adapt to the demands of social distancing and staggered peak hours.

For example, in Argentina, the train network uses a combination of facial recognition, thermal imaging, and QR codes to validate ticket reservations, do fast temperature checks and make sure only essential workers access trains during rush hour. In South Korea, they have installed glass-panelled bus shelters with external thermal cameras and internal UV sterilisers to check commuters for fever and create a sterile space where they wait for their bus. China is using speech recognition and voice-enabled ticket vending machines to minimise contact with surfaces and prevent infection. Italy has developed voice-activated buttons for elevators, so you don’t have to press anything to ask for help. London is trialling an automated handrail cleaning system that uses UV light to disinfect the rubber belt on escalators in the tube network.

The pandemic has driven all these initiatives. All of them would have been a long way down the priority list before the pandemic when we were more interested in using environmentally friendly materials than creating a safe, hygienic environment.

The biggest challenge is how we manage crowds. Avoiding rush-hour stress used to be about efficiency, and now it is about safety. Transport planners are looking to artificial intelligence and Internet of Things techniques to retrieve information that will drive more effective crowd control. Singapore’s Land Transit Authority is already implementing a data-driven analytics system to manage surges and emergencies in the transport network.

The upside is that while these investments may be focused on fighting the pandemic, they will create new services and capabilities in the future. We should have a better understanding of commuter behaviour. We should have a greatly improved passenger experience. We will undoubtedly have a more efficient and far safer public transportation system. All of this may mean that the COVID-19 crisis may indirectly lead to a substantial improvement in public transportation and how we move around our cities.

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