• 3 April 2020
  • Covid-19

  • by

The COVID-19 outbreak and implications to sustainable urban mobility – some observations

Authors: Sebastian Ibold/GIZ China, Nikola Medimorec/SLOCAT, Armin Wagner/GIZ, Julieta Peruzzo /Buenos Aires [1] Contributions by: Linus Platzer/GIZ, Victor Valente/GIZ

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Update: 20.3.2020 // Reflections on cycling, public space and introduction of proposed conceptual framework for transport sector response to COVID-19 based on Avoid-Shift-Improve Approach

Update 27.3.2020 // Reflections on sequencing and prioritization of measures, impressions from Brazil, additional information / anecdotal evidence on (potential) impact

Update 02.04.2020 // Reflections on COVID-19 impact on shared mobility, Case Study Tunis, the 4 phases of COVID-19 outbreak&transport response

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic; as of March 26, about 2.6 billion people (incl. 1.3 billion in India alone) are under lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.

Content –


COVID-19 and Public Transport

Need for Coordinated Response

Need for Protection of Staff, Infrastructure and Passengers

Recommendations to Protect Staff and Infrastructure

Recommendations to Protect Passengers

Need for Coordinated Demand Management

COVID-19 and Shared-Mobility

Proposed Conceptual Framework for Transport Sector Response to COVID-19 Based on Avoid-Shift-Improve Approach

Further observations on impact of COVID-19


Questions for further discussion

Annex: In-Depth Country Observation Brazil – Decrease in passenger demand in Brazil puts the transportation sector on alert [2]


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. As of March 26, about 2.6 billion people (including 1.3 billion in India alone) are under lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. Many countries have closed their borders and imposed curfews – resulting in sharp reductions in transport demand also on regional and continental level. It is highly likely that the corona virus outbreak will have longer-term impacts to our individual behavior and lifestyle, the way we work, consume and travel. Public transport but also shared mobility services are on the one hand vectors for distribution of the virus. On the other hand, they are severely impacted by travel bans and individual concerns in order to avoid public gatherings leading to plummeting ridership and reduced travel and transport demand.

Even though not yet to be finally assessed, the economic impact of the virus outbreak in the public transport and shared mobility sector (e.g. ride-hailing, ride-pooling, scooter-sharing) is most likely severe. As public transport is directly linked to economic development and dependent of fares and subsidies, loss of revenue is most likely inevitable. Besides the loss of revenue, higher costs for frequent cleaning of vehicles and facilities or increased train frequency over a longer period of time can put additional financial burdens on public transport companies. Shared mobility service providers such as Uber, Lyft, Ola, Grab or Didi Chuxing are suffering economic losses from plummeting demand leading to increasing financial pressure and risks for the so-called gig-economy workers and in particular drivers.

However, the overall picture and the longer-term implications to the public transport systems and shared-mobility operators is still very complex and fuzzy: On the one hand travel demand is falling globally due to the virus spread (80 up to 90 percent in some Chinese cities due to curfews). On the other hand, a decline in travel demand due to behavioral change of individual users and specifications by companies is seen.

Against the background of the virus spread, what are key trends emerging related to sustainable mobility and what are preliminary lessons learnt from measures taken for instance in China, Korea and other parts of the world?

COVID-19 and Public Transport

With regard to the pathogens’ ability to travel, buses and trains are of course excellent ways of spreading of infections – the study on infection of 9 passengers in a long-distance bus in Hunan in January became famous in this respect; the study has been retracted meanwhile without giving reasons.

In many Asian cities such as Wuhan or Huanggang or Delhi, public transport was suspended in order to contain the virus. Even though the total shut down of public transport systems is not a measure taken by all cities which are affected by the epidemic, it is important to systematically identify areas of action to minimize the risks for public transport staff and passengers.

Need for Coordinated Response

In order to ensure a systematically coordinated response and effective implementation of measures by public transport companies and authorities, contagious virus or pandemic response plans shall form the basis for action and measure implementation. In addition, all measures taken by governmental agencies and public transport companies in order to ensure safety of staff and passengers as well as countering a further spread of COVID-19 shall be based on comprehensive impact assessments. Social, environmental and climate as well as economic impacts of measures shall be taken into account.

Need for Protection of Staff, Infrastructure and Passengers

Employees are the most important assets in public transport. They must therefore be given special protection, both as individuals and in their function as drivers, supervisors, managers, etc. It is in the nature of things that employees in public transport have close contact with the customers, i.e. the passengers. Therefore, protective measures cannot cover all potential risks.

International associations like the Transport Research Board (TRB), the American Public Transport Association (APTA) and the International Organisation for Public Transport Authorities and Operators (UITP) provide factsheets and general information and monitor the situation. It is worthwhile to search on their platforms regularly for information. For example, APTA recommends the following measures:

How COVID-19 spread through a Hunan bus, Source: Hu Shixiong, Hunan Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, SCMP

APTA recommendations for preventing the spread of disease, Source: APTA

The Shenzhen Bus Group Company has compiled a comprehensive report on measures and experiences in the fight against the corona virus including:

Recommendations by the Shenzhen Bus Group to avoid the spread of disease, Source: Joe Ma (Deputy General Manager at Shenzhen Bus Group Company) via LinkedIn

Recommendations to Protect Staff and Infrastructure

Following measures should be considered by public transport companies in order to protect their staff, infrastructure and operation:

a) Information and awareness: Staff need to be well informed and awareness shall be raised on the risks of infection and the measures needed to be taken in order to minimize those risks.

b) Training: Staff shall receive special training on how to disinfect facilities and surfaces properly. Furthermore, staff shall be trained on how to communicate with and react to passenger’s concerns about measures taken to prevent the virus spread (e. g. disinfection measures).

c) Provision with protection gear and disinfection: Staff shall be provided with adequate protection gear (face masks, gloves/hand sanitizers) in order to secure their health and avoid them from being infected.

d) Health check-up: Regular health check-ups can support and ensure that the employees feel safe and comfortable at work as well as identify any potential infections in an early stage.

e) Close of front door / No ticket sales by driver / E-Ticketing: In many bus companies, passengers board the bus at the front and pay for their ticket or show it to the driver. This is not only an operative headache (keyword: long stops), but also a permanent health burden for the driver. For this reason, many public transport operators now prohibit passengers from boarding at the front and no longer sell tickets on the bus. This should become the rule even without a spreading virus and accelerate the transition to electronic and contactless ticketing/payment (e. g. smart cards, QR-code based ticketing/payment). Examples include Berlin, Beijing, and cities in Switzerland and Poland. PT TransJakarta will implement a non-cash payment system at all TransJakarta stops to prevent transmission of the Corona Virus. The Head of the Corporate and Public Relations Division of PT TransJakarta, Nadia Diposanjoyo, stated that top up stations were available at all BRT shelters. “Starting Thursday, March 19, 2020, all forms of transactions using cash in top-up activities or top up for electronic money and starter card purchases will be unavailable,” she said. In the same thrust, Matatu operators in Kenya envisage to accept payments through M-PESA, destroying a long held myth that informal transport an cash go hand-in-hand

f) Separation of drivers/ticket sellers and passengers: Drivers and ticket sellers as well as any other staff should be separated from passengers by Plexiglas or other means, temporary measures to avoid too close contact can include plastic tape “barriers” like in Switzerland:

Temporary measures to avoid too close contact can include plastic tape “barriers”, Source: Francesca @livin_her_dream and @DiHeler via Twitter

g) Provision of infrastructure: As for example bus drivers are often visiting restrooms at stops but many have closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, some cities such as Detroit have provided drivers with portable toilets.

h) Protection of infrastructure and operations: Command and control infrastructure and operation should be protected (e. g. by staff working in different shifts to avoid infection of important knowledge carriers or operators). Common spaces such as canteeens and cafeterias should be well managed. This can include extended serving hours, requirements to maintain distances of at least 1m while waiting and eating.

Recommendations to Protect Passengers

The protection of passengers is not only a necessary welfare measure but also an important measure to maintain people’s confidence in public transport. Measures must therefore be effective, but also adequately accessible and understandable in terms of communication.

a) General information: Information for passengers on standards of conduct can be disseminated through various channels. APTA offers many examples. Posters and Social Media information examples from Singapore are also illustrative. The use of video as applied in the King County Metro can enhance outreach and accessibility for users.

b) Risk information: Transparency is the most important aspect of dealing with extreme situations. In other words, in case that there was any passenger infected with COVID-19 using public transport, the local government and public transport provider should do its best to provide extensive information about the risk (e. g. by providing QR-code based info platforms to passengers), trace the activity of persons and share all potentially valuable information with the public. It will help to identify further cases and to ensure trust in public transport from the passengers.

c) Information on public transport schedule and time table adjustments: Against the background of a dropping demands, some cities and public transport operators such as the BVG in Berlin have adjusted their public transport operation schedules. A direct and transparent communication (e. g. by Social Media) of those adjustments of schedules, time tables and intervals shall be communicated to passengers in order to ensure public transport system and operation effectiveness, reliability, trust and convenience.

Announcement of public transport interval changes by BGV, Source: @BVG_Ubahn via Twitter

d) Access control and temperature checks: In order to minimize the risk of infected people entering public transport stations (e. g. subway, or train stations), health control checkpoints have been added in many cities in China. Before accessing a public transport station, people’s body temperature has to be checked. In case that signs of fever are found, people are not allowed to enter the station.

e) Cleaning & disinfection: Regular disinfection of vehicles and equipment (such as turnstiles and handrails) with special anti-microbial cleansers is essential to reduce infection risks. Examples are available worldwide. The Shenzhen Bus Group Company has provided information on how and when vehicles are cleaned, both buses and taxis. In addition, hand sanitizers and maybe masks shall be provided (in South Korea, especially in buses, hand sanitizers have been provided at the front entry and back exit of each vehicle). Other examples include MoBus by @CRUT_BBSR implementing comprehensive cleaning measures. As advanced approaches, reports from Shanghai show the use of UV-light to clean vehicles [1] or as in Hongkong the use of robots to clean/disinfect vehicles.

f) More space & social distancing: Implement measures that increase the distance between passengers to minimize the risk of infections. This can be done by increasing the frequency of public transport (as in the Example of Copenhagen), by extra markers as shown in the image below or by demand control using apps. As a counter-draft to larger capacities, the city administration in Ulaan Bataar reduces bus operations by 50% to reduce travel opportunities (and thus risks for infections). The traditional Car-free Day in Kigali / Rwanda focused on individual exercises to reduce health risks.

Markers to guide on minimum distance between people, Source: Kari @karicleta via Twitter

In Shenzhen, it is required to reduce occupancy of public transport vehicles to a maximum of 50 percent. South Korea introduced a ‘Social Distancing’ campaign, asking people to refrain from social activities and public gathering outdoor.

Need for Coordinated Demand Management:

Several developments are currently coming together: On the one hand, governments and administrations are deliberately reducing or even suspending (e. g. Oman, Punjab, Kashmir) public transport services, while on the other hand people are avoiding travel and using public transport fearing risks of infection. All this leads to a decline in demand for public transport – but public transport is still needed to provide basic services, especially for employees of systemically relevant functions. In this context, a coordinated approach consisting of reducing demand and supply is necessary.

a) Impact assessment: In order to avoid rebound effects from demand control and management measures (e. g. higher passenger density due to schedule changes and longer intervals), comprehensive impact assessments should be conducted before implementation. Examples, e. g. from Jakarta, show that a one-sided reduction of supply while demand remains the same leads to even greater concentration and thus counterproductive results. E.g., the limitation of the operation of transport modes by the DKI Jakarta Provincial Government (Pemprov), is considered not yet effective in suppressing the transmission of the corona virus. Observers consider that this very sudden policy is not aligned with the policies of private companies. The impact is that employees who have not been asked to work from home continue to go to work, where many still use public transport. Critics has also arisen as many passengers of public transport are not maintaining social distancing. Starting March 16 to 30, 2020, TransJakarta services only operate on 13 routes with a 20-minute headway. This means that all non-corridor (Non-BRT), Royaltrans and Microtrans services are eliminated. Reduction of physical interaction is applied at TransJakarta bus stops and buses that pass across 13 corridors by providing inter-individual distances of one to two meters in public transportation space, such as at bus stops and on buses. For the bus stops, TransJakarta will provide markers and require customers to stand at a set distance. Whereas on the bus, customers will be seated to set the distance so as to minimize physical interaction between customers. This resulted in busway passengers queued reaching hundreds of meters outside the bus stop due to the reduction in the number of TransJakarta bus fleets.

b) Public transport booking and appointments systems: In order to manage demand, a staggered access to public transport stations is trialed in Beijing. Beijing plans to experiment with a “subway by appointment” system to prevent crowding at entrance of subway stations. Users can use apps getting appointments to enter two of the busiest subway stations in Beijing during peak times. In works via a QR-Code on user’s phones that is valid for a half-hour time slot to enter the station.

c) Shift to Cycling: Cycling is a great way to stay healthy (not only in times of the COVID-19 outbreak) and is a suitable alternative to gyms which in many cities had to close. But cycling is also an effective way to support social distancing and to relieve the burden on public transport. Denmark released recommendations for public transport users, among which the first recommendation is to walk or cycle if possible. In Germany, the German Minister of Health Mr. Jens Spahn stressed that people should avoid public transport and instead should cycle more in order to reduce risks of infection. Even though cycling besides being a healthy and sustainable means of transport is a good way to release pressure from public transport systems, it is important to also induce a shift from private car usage (incl. ride-hailing and taxis) to cycling but also walking to ensure the health of people and allow them to conduct physical activity safely. Bogota is a great example – the city has set up a network of emergency bike ways (Bogota already has 500km of permanent bikeways):

– Monday, 16th March 2020: 22 km of crucial corridors, only peak periods

– Tuesday, 17th: 117 km of all ciclovía network, all day

– Wednesday: 76km of adjusted network, all day

– The measure was suspended after four days, as a full quarantine started in Colombia.

The measure was not only aimed at countering the further virus spread, but in particular at relieving the Transmilenio BRT system and improving air quality. This shows, however, that the objectives of sustainable mobility and COVID-19 abatement are highly congruent. The German capital Berlin mirrors this approach and has set up two temporary bike lanes.

Another example for cycling in times of the virus outbreak is New York City: The ridership of Citi Bike increased by 67% in March, and more people have been seen bike commuting to avoid using the subway. Furthermore, restaurants are only allowed to provide take-outs and deliveries. In order to support this policy, the mayor had to lift a previous ban of e-bikes to support deliveries. At the same time, subway ridership fell by nearly 20% and 15% on buses compared with a similar day last year. The issues and reduced ridership will very likely lead to financial issues for MTA and NYC’s city finances in general. It might lead to a quicker introduction (or at least supporting to make the case) of congestion charging which is planned for next year. In order to promote cycling, the City of Vienna/Austria has published a cycling network map to facilitate cycling. The shift to cycling is not uncontested: Reports indicate that under the curfew rules in Spain and Italy, cycling is prohibited. It was initially whether this ban refers to cycling sport or also for daily chores. As a counterexample, Berlin keeps bicycle repair shops and bicycle dealers open during planned lockdown to support resilient, sustainable mobility.

COVID-19 and Shared-Mobility

As described earlier, the outbreak and global spread of COVID-19 has significant impact on the mobility behavior of people. As cases of the virus soar worldwide, in particular companies in the so-called gig-economy, e. g. shared mobility (which covers ride-hailing, bikesharing, carsharing and micromobility) but also food and parcel delivery companies, have come under increasing pressure to look after people who work on their platforms and are typically classified as independent contractors, often lacking sick leave and other benefits. Many shared-mobility service providers worldwide had to suspend their services, lay off staff and have taken various measures in order to protect drivers, passengers and their businesses. Below listed is an overview on implications of COVID-19 to and measures taken by shared mobility service providers (see more discussion on this topic here):

a) Suspension of services: Against the COVID-19 pandemic, many shared mobility companies have suspended their ride-sharing services. It was reported that Uber has halted its pooled rides services in the US and Canada and Lyft did so in all its markets. Both of them are only providing ride-hailing services to individual customers. Ola has stopped its services in Delhi. In Hamburg, ride-pooling company Moia will suspend its operations from April 1, 2020. The world’s largest e-scooter rental company Lime has stopped its services in nearly 24 countries and Uber (Jump) and Bird (Circ) stopped operations in almost all European cities. Nation-wide lockdowns impact carsharing services, e.g. CityHop in New Zealands is being suspended.

b) Reduction of staff/salaries and working time: Many of the new mobility start-up companies were under financial pressure already before COVID-19. The venture capital investment had already dropped by more than half in 2019 compared to 2018. The virus outbreak and reduced numbers of passengers and customers is increasing this pressure, forcing companies to lay off staff and to reduce salaries and working time. It was reported that German company Tier-Mobility has set about 60 percent of its staff on short-time work with reduced working hours and salaries and so did Moia and Clevershuttle. Bird laid off about 30 percent of its employees, about 406 people, amid the uncertainty caused by the virus outbreak.

c) Protection of drivers and passengers: Shared mobility companies take various measures to protect their drivers and passengers from infection. Uber announced that it will suspend the accounts of drivers and passengers who are tested positive for COVID-19 or may have been exposed to it. Most companies are providing disinfectants to their drivers to keep their cars clean. Staff of e-scooter rental company Tier disinfects scooters with each battery change. Swedish E-scooter company Voi recommends its customers to use gloves in order to protect them from infection risks. It was reported that Clevershuttle is increasingly using its LEVC London Cab which has a glass window between the driver and passengers in the back of the car. For its other vehicles, plastic film protective sheets is used in order to avoid contact and reduce infection risks. Didi Chuxing has rolled out the use of protective sheets in Wuhan, Shenzhen and other cities under the guidance of medical professionals. Grab encourages passengers to go cashless with GrabPay to minimize physical contact. In China, Didi Chuxing is requesting passengers who do not book rides through the app and pay in cash to leave their contact details and phone numbers in order to track infection chains and to inform passengers in case a driver is later reported to be sick.

Protective sheets in a Didi Chuxing ride-hailing car (“Beijing Cheer Up!”), Source: Sebastian Ibold

d) Financial support to drivers: In order to support drivers which are affected by the virus and got infected and sick, Didi Chuxing has set up a special fund to financially support them in case that they get infected with COVID-19 and face loss of income. After introducing the fund in China, Didi has set-up an USD 10 million fund to support its drivers in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Japan and Mexico. Grab Malaysia introduced a “ride cover” policy to include coverage for Covid-19 and financial support will be given by the company to drivers who struggle during the outbreak. Ola has launched an initiative under its social welfare wing, Ola Foundation called “Drive The Driver Fund”, wherein the company offers support to auto-rickshaw, cab, kaali-peeli and taxi drivers through a contribution from the Ola group, investors and a citizen crowdfunding platform. The fund will support drivers and their families that have been affected by Covid-19.

e) Provision of food delivery services: China’s Didi Chuxing has introduced delivery services in 21 cities, such as Shanghai, Hangzhou or Chengdu, to provide drivers with more income as COVID-19 has battered ride-hailing demand. Customers can order groceries or coffee via the Didi App and the driver will buy the requested items and deliver them. Didi also plans to introduce speedy courier services. Also Grab has introduced car-based delivery services in order to improve income opportunities for drivers. It was reported that KFC and Pizza Hut in China have launched a contactless delivery service in an attempt to reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission of COVID-19. After customers select the “contactless delivery” option when placing an order online, couriers will call them to set a delivery location. The courier will watch from at least a 10-foot distance as the customer picks up the order.

f) Transport of medical staff: In Berlin, van pooling company BerlKönig suspended its regular operations from March 25 to April 19, 2020 and started to provide on-demand rides for medical and emergency staff which can use the service for commuting from home to work. While suspending its ride-hailing service, Chinese Didi Chuxing in Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, and other cities has provided free transportation to medical workers, deploying two special fleets of drivers dressed in protective uniforms with regularly disinfected vehicles. In Bogota, a bikesharing company provided 400 electric bicycles to medical staff, allowing them to reach their work and make use of the emergency bikeways. The initiative was led by NUMO, Despacio and MUVO.

Proposed Conceptual Framework for Transport Sector Response to COVID-19 Based on Avoid-Shift-Improve Approach

Globally, cities and countries are currently implementing a large number of measures in the field of transport to stop the further spread of COVID-19. It is not yet possible to draw any conclusive conclusions about the efficiency and effectiveness of these measures. At the same time, we should not and do not want to lose sight of the goals of sustainable mobility. In order to create a better understanding of possible measures and at the same time provide a link to the transport policy debate, we have arranged the measures according to Avoid-Shift-Improve:

1. Avoid: Measures to reduce individual (motorised) transport demand – both in the short term to combat the coronavirus epidemic and in the long term to reduce carbon emissions, accidents and congestion,

2. Shift: Measures to direct users to safe, clean, low-contact means of transport in the wake of the corona crisis. In the long term, promoting forms of active mobility such as walking and cycling and attractive, reliable, accessible, affordable and competitive public transport to keep cities liveable,

3. Improve: Improving quality of operations and services, especially in public transport, in order to remain attractive and, in particular, to avoid crowding. An improved quality of biking and walking will help to free space in other modes.

Technological innovation and in particular digitalisation are important elements to achieve improvements and developments in all three fields Avoid, Shift and Improve.

With the following overview, we want to suggest that the measures taken in the context of the corona crisis are both fair (in terms of social participation, gender and generational equity) and support the objectives of transport transformation in the long term.

Avoid Shift Improve – Instruments @ COVID-19, TUMI Initiative

With the drastic tightening of movement regulations in many cities and countries, the need to differentiate measures has become even more apparent. Here, the distinction between essential and non-essential traffic is particularly important. Necessary traffic includes essential delivery transport, the transport of medical personnel, retail and wholesale employees, employees of strategic infrastructures (water, energy, transport, etc.), security personnel, etc. This traffic is to be handled under the highest possible sanitary standards and also adapted to e.g. shift work. In order to relieve the regular public transport at this point, possibilities such as the construction of temporary cycling infrastructure or the limitation of private car use (to free up space) should be used.

An essential element of the strategy is the sequencing of measures – here, administrations from the areas of health, transport, safety, etc. must work together. Anecdotal observations show that unilateral restrictions on public transport services are often counterproductive. However, the measures for initial restrictions must first be communicated and accepted by the population, after which the public transport service can be restricted and tailored to essential user groups. Further, measures need to be differentiated according to the phases of the epidemic:

The 4 Phases of the pandemic are (see annex 1 for details):

Phase 1: “Import” of virus / few cases (containment)

Phase 2: Community dispersal / community containment

Phase 3: Epidemic dispersion / sustained transmission

Phase 4: Relaxation

The crisis follows these phases with varying degrees of severity of the measures used in the areas of health, public safety and transport – illustrated here by the example of Beijing and Singapore.


It is clear that the elements of the Avoid-Shift-Improve approach need to be applied and prioritized differently depending on the phase of the pandemic. In phases 1 and 2, measures in the area of Shift and Improve are relevant in order to enable physical distancing on the one hand and the transport of essential goods and people on the other hand. Phase 3 focuses on avoid measures that dramatically reduce the transport volume and focus centrally on essential actors and goods. In this phase, the transport sector clearly implements the instructions of the health authorities – transport is a servant of health paradigms. In many places, these requirements include a strict quarantine / lockdown. The transport sector response could include the following elements for various transport modes:

In Phase 4, the main focus is on preventing a resurgence of the epidemic through Improve measures, while at the same time enabling an economic upturn.

Further observations on impact of COVID-19

Already, we can see the impacts of the pandemic and the consequences of measures to stop or slow the spread of the virus worldwide. The impacts – on the economy, on social behavior, on climate and urban environments – can be felt in various fields.

Unintentionally, many of the measures enacted against the pandemic let GHG emissions and air pollution drop. Here, the largest cause is the (voluntary or imposed) restrictions on mobility: fewer commuters driving their cars work, air travel has gone back, many people stay at home or only move locally. The only exceptions currently seem to be cargo ships and delivery services. Data analysis from location technology providers shows that car travel in European and US cities has reduced quite dramatically, and those moving around in a city often shift to their bicycle (some sources in German). Earth satellite observation data also reveals that locations with high virus outbreaks and bad air quality are more likely to suffer, as those persistently exposed to air pollution are more at risk of dying from the pandemic. Needless to say that air pollution is already responsible for causing lung and heart damages leading to over 8 million premature deaths annually.

While it is currently too early to estimate real time economic effects, data on national electricity demand and household mobility point towards a significant downturn in economic activity. The consequences of this pandemic-induced recession might last longer than the virus outbreak, hit strained finances heavily, and lead to a strong increase in unemployment. Next to airline and other industries, public transit agencies and associations have started making demands for financial government aid packages to help them through the unraveling crisis. In addition, taxi industries or informal transport operators, especially in countries with limited capacities for stimulus policies, are suffering since their daily revenues have been cut. Remember, these consequences are not distributed equally: women may be hit particularly hard.

Taking a look into the next months to come, it is important to keep in mind that measures enacted now aiming to mitigate the impacts (e.g. short-term work, stimulus funding) will have an indifferent or even negative effect on sustainable mobility later unless measures are also targeted specifically. Otherwise, the legacy of the COVID-19 shock will be damaged economies and damaging mobility systems.


The long-term implications and impacts of COVID-19 on public transport and shared mobility and in general mobility behaviour cannot be fully assessed in the moment. But it is clear that all possible efforts need to be made to ensure that measures taken by governmental agencies, public transport and share mobility companies in order to ensure safety of staff and passengers as well as a further spread of COVID-19 shall be based on comprehensive impact assessments, taking into account social, environmental and climate as well as economic impacts.

…last but not least…

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” (Rahm Emanuel)…foster innovation and make use of digital solutions, promote e-payment, increase automation, focus on customers, quality of facilities and high service levels to ensure long-term oriented competitive, attractive and safe public transport.

Questions for further discussion

  1. Will the virus outbreak lead to a general change of mobility behavior?
  2. Will the virus outbreak lead to a future shift to use more the bicycle or instead the personal car?
  3. Will new mobility services (e. g. ride-hailing) see a surge of trips due to the virus outbreak?
  4. Will the virus outbreak lead to decline of public transport and in particular bus and rail users?
  5. Which public transport companies will be effected most severely by the virus outbreak (e. g. companies that rely on daily cash due to high share of cash payments and single tickets) or operators/companies with higher share of public subsidies, monthly passes?
  6. Will the virus outbreak lead to a higher demand for subsidies to public transport operators?
  7. Is the taxi industry affected, requiring support or do we observe higher demand as people opt for more individual solutions?

Annex 1: The 4 phases of COVID-19 and proposed transport response

Phase 1: Viral Importation (Containment)

Progress of the virus: People who “import” the virus from abroad. Adequate containment must be implemented. Isolation and control measures introduced so that those who are sick do not pass on the infection to others.

Countries at this stage: As of this moment most countries have bypassed this phase.

Aim: Reduce the circulation and concentration of passengers in public transport and help promote social distancing.

Types of measures that can be implemented:

  1. Reduce trip demand
  2. Guarantee offer
  3. Change trip modality
  4. Regulate the fluxes in travel demand
  5. Communication and awareness to the passenger

Phase 2: Community contagion

Progress of the virus: People who are infected in a communitary manner within the same country and without direct contact with those who have travelled to areas of risk.

Areas at this stage: USA, Europe, South Korea.

Aim: Reduce circulation and concentration of passengers in public transport as much as possible.

Types of measures that can be implemented:

  1. Reduce travel demand
  2. Guarantee offer
  3. Change trip modality
  4. Regulate the fluxes in travel demand
  5. Communication and awareness to the passenger

Phase 3: Sustained Transmission

Progress of virus: Sustained communitary transmission cases with large numbers of infected.

Areas at this stage: Italy, Spain, USA.

Aim: Suspend public transport/radically modify.

Types of measures that can be implemented:

1. Determine who are the essential workers in specific areas (health, security etc.)

  • Police
  • Doctors and nurses
  • Fire department
  • Personnel on duty in government entities and companies that offer specific services.

2. Map the origin-destination of personnel designated as essential workers.

3. Define logistics plan.

4. Agreement with bus/minivans in order to coordinate transfers.

Annex 2: In-Depth Country Observation Brazil – Decrease in passenger demand in Brazil puts the transportation sector on alert [2]

A Provisional Measure and Decree were approved in Brazil last Saturday (21/03) to regulate essential services that should not be interrupted during the state of emergency because of the corona virus pandemic. These involve intermunicipal, interstate and international transport of passengers and the transport of passengers by taxi or application, as well as transport and delivery of cargo in general.

The cargo sector so far has been the least affected, with measures being taken to prevent workers from getting contaminated. The passenger transportation sector, in the other hand, is going through a difficult time, facing challenges not only to keep the fleet in operation in a manner that assures the protection of passengers and workers against the COVID19, but also to keep revenue losses as low possible in this exceptional situation.

Up to now the decrease in demand for public transportation is estimated between 30% and 50% but there are some cases where almost 90% less passengers were registered. According to Otávio Vieira da Cunha, president of NTU (National Association of Urban Transport Companies), “the outlook is so negative that a daily loss of more than R$ 1 billion is estimated for the sector due to the reduction of passengers.”

Support packages and subsidies for the transport sector are not yet being discussed on the federal level, but some measures are being taken at the municipal and state levels. In most of the big cities the governors have decreed a state of public calamity and are restricting the displacement of people. The general instruction is not to leave home. At the same time mayors and governors agree that public transportation remains in operation because of its essential nature for workers who are active in the areas of health, commerce and other indispensable services.

The main action in the sector to effectively fight the spread of Corona up to now is reducing the circulating fleet. With reduced fleets, however, people end up having to travel closer to one another. Passengers are using social media networks to show that even with the reduced passenger numbers, trains, metro and buses are still crowded during peak hours in big cities. In six states in the country buses from other federation units have been denied to bring passengers into their territory.

In São Paulo, as a consequence of the restricting measures, the public transport demand has fallen significantly. For the subway a drop of 45% was registered, buses registered a decrease of around 40% and trains of at least 35%. Nevetheless, the services are being maintained. In the metropolitan region ABC Paulista (ca. 2,8 million inhabitants), the mayors decided to paralyse all municipal buses from 29 March on, despite the state government’s contrary appeal.

In Rio de Janeiro according to the Bus Rapid Transit operator, there has been a drop in passenger numbers of 50%, the Light rail train has had even worse reductions in the number of passengers. The State Government has prohibited the circulation of buses and vans between the 22 municipalities of the Metropolitan Region and the 70 municipalities in the interior of the state. An ordinance from (17/03) determined that public transport vehicles and tourism companies should carry only seated passengers in Rio city in order to guarantee that vehicles are not overcrowded.

In Curitiba since Friday (20/3), urban bus trips have been reduced. And as of Monday (23/3), buses are operating on Saturday’s schedules throughout the week. On Saturdays, the Sunday schedule will be applied. According to the company which is responsible for the urban mobility management in Curitiba, the number of passengers on urban buses has dropped by 37%.

The government of Pernambuco announced that the bus fleet in the Metropolitan Region of the state capital Recife was reduced by 25% in order to compensate for the 45% drop in demand registered in the system. Inter-municipal transport was suspended from Monday (23/3) on. The Recife Subway is operating only during peak hours. The passenger reduction in the subway system was estimated by 33%.

In Ceará, the Coronavirus made the State Government suspend intermunicipal transportation, subway and Light Rail Vehicle in 3 of the major cities. These measures were made effective on Monday (23/03).

A general orientation on how to face the pandemic related challenges is urging in Brazil, just like in other countries. Public transport operators need clear guidance as well as certainty in relation to eventual financial aids in order to be able to take the right decisions and make the protection of the population more effective.

Annex 3: Case study: COVID-19 and Public Transport in Tunisia

(Dr Saerom Han and Rania Houiji via https://transportandyouthemploymentinafrica.com/in-the-field/)

˜I was scared of the virus particularly when I took bus. I used to be feeling bad because of harassment, but now the virus is more threatening than harassment. When someone slightly touched my hand, I felt myself dead and cried for no reason. I started using collective taxi or private taxi because they are safer than bus…” (Fatma, woman in her 20s living in Tunis)

As the situation with COVID-19 was getting worse in Tunisia, Fatma, who is quoted above, stopped using taxis and started commuting to work via a private bus rented by her company for workers. She is one of many Tunisians who, while wanting to stay at home, has to go continue to work because she lives from hand-to-mouth. Many Tunisians have no choice other than to take overly crowded public means of transport, despite the current danger of being infected, because of not being able to afford a car or private taxi.

The number of the COVID-19 cases in Tunisia has been rising continuously since the first case was confirmed on March 2, 2020. The government reported 114 infection cases with four deaths as of March 25, but the actual number of cases is likely to be far higher than what was reported given Tunisia’s limited testing capabilities. So far it has only carried out 69 tests per million people. Like many other countries, Tunisia’s medical infrastructure is poorly prepared for infection control and treatment as marked by the presence of only three hospital beds per 1,000 people. The state is trying to prevent further spread of the virus mainly through social distancing measures. Two days after the state decided to close borders for all commercial travels and ban public events and gatherings on March 16, it also imposed a two-week curfew between 6pm and 6am to restrict the mobility of people.

Many doctors have warned against the risk of the spread of the virus via buses and metros as they are so over-crowded. The interview data [collected prior to the arrival of COVID-19] in our ˜Youth Engagement and Skills Acquisition within Africa’s Transport Sector” project in Tunis supports this concern. Many public transport workers and passengers alike complained about the shortage of buses and metros particularly in peri-urban areas. The interview data also indicates that public transport in general is not hygienic, and is poorly managed and unsafe.

Amid the growing concern about the safety of passengers and workers, the public transport sector initiated several measures to combat the spread of infection. The Ministry of Transport and Logistics said that all public transport modes will be sanitized regularly and encouraged people to avoid unnecessary travel. In accordance with the government’s curfew decision, the national public transport company TRANSTU announced that it will provide 160 additional buses and 17 additional metro trips during the late afternoon time in order to avoid peak-time congestion during the curfew hours. However, the sudden imposition of curfew created chaos at bus and metro stations as they became much more crowded than usual with people trying to head home before 6pm. Although public transport companies attempted to prevent high congestion, metros, buses and collective taxies were severely overloaded and delayed.

The dire situation of public transport is making not only passengers but also transport staff vulnerable to the infection. Criticizing the authorities’ slow response to the pandemic, a representative of metro conductors, Rachid, said that all public transport in Tunis must stop operating if they are to protect their staff and passengers. On March 20, he called for the general lockdown of the country via his Facebook post, warning that metro workers will stop working if the government fails to do so. The situation with buses is even worse as, unlike metros, bus drivers and ticket sellers have to share the space with passengers. TRANSTU has recently installed ad hoc plastic curtains to protect drivers.

As the situation with COVID-19 evolved, Tunisia finally entered into a two-weeks of general quarantine on March 22 with the exception for those who work in vital sectors including security, health, water, electricity and public transport. Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced that only around 15% of Tunisians who work in vital sectors are allowed to go out for work, and military and police officers will be deployed on streets to control the mobility of people. However, all Tunisians can leave their house for a short walk and for grocery shopping.

Following the government’s decision, TRANSTU reduced the service of metros and buses to every 30 to 45 minutes. It still remains to be seen whether public transport will meet the needs of citizens while limiting the spread of the virus. But, the picture below, widely circulated on social media on the first day of the nationwide lockdown, reflects the current challenges and limitations of the public transport sector in Tunisia.

Source Medea Bachene

[1] Disclaimer:

  • The authors are transport people, not doctors, or epidemic experts.
  • The crisis is just beginning in many places, so the descriptions are anecdotal evidence and make no claim to completeness.
  • The response to the crisis will vary from place to place, and will be different in the more individualistic societies of the West than in the more collectivist societies of the East and South.
  • And: All of us agree that we need to act more ambitiously on the road safety crisis, killing 1.35 mln people annually
  • We can all learn together and look forward to sharing even in these unusual times.
  • (Please note that this is not an official recommendation, but a collection practices from around the world. It is too premature to fully assess and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of all measures)

[2] Sources Case Study Brazil: