Public transport in times of Covid-19: disruption and continuity in urban mobility

By Tonio Weicker, Wladimir Sgibnev, Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig

Over the last couple of months, it is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted the way people perceive and use public transport. Restrictions have been enforced across the world, which have dramatically affected free movement on all scales. These have ranged from simple advice through various degrees of lockdowns, to app-based ghettos based on social status – with different consequences of each.

According to John Urry and Margaret Grieco, “freedom of movement, as represented in popular media, politics and the public sphere, is the ideology and utopia of the twenty-first century”. This breakdown of mobility networks and routines therefore has broad social significance. Interrupted global supply chainsclosed metro networks, deserted transportation hubs, and locked borders not only challenge economic flows and travel rights within the EU, but fundamentally question the paradigm that equates movement with individual and collective progress.

The last couple of months have created a crisis of mobility, raising questions about the future of public transport that reach beyond the corona virus. An obvious consequence that is a loss of trust in public transport. Even though no cases have yet been traced back to a contagion through seats, handles, or any other surfaces, these have turned into dangerous transmitters, despite hygiene measures by public transport providers and the increased frequency of cleaning and showcase disinfection campaigns. 

Successful and highly vocal campaigns to promote public transport in European cities have thus turned into narratives of threat and danger. Any idea that urban public transport might become a pleasant, convivial public space seems doubtful. How do we help an elderly to enter the bus, when body contact, especially to potential risk groups, is prohibited? How do we build bonds of community and responsibility through sharing a transport mode, if we are governed by fear and social distancing?

Passenger numbers have drastically decreased during the lockdown, leading some to question whether ‘the coronavirus has killed off public transportation across the world’ for good. How long this suspicion will last, we can only guess. However for now, public transport usage remains at a low-level across Europe, despite many countries partially releasing their lockdowns. The fact that buses and metros were among the first sectors to introduce obligatory face covering, may have only increased anxiety surrounding them. Social distancing, masks, and gloves make the otherwise invisible virus present on public transport, providing a dilemma for public transport providers as they balance the competing demands of comfort, safety and revenue.

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Covid-19 has also revealed other aspects about the place of public transport in cities. Without students, parents with children, elderly residents, and tourists, public transport has returned to being solely a means through which the working class reach their working spaces. Some Eastern European countries have further segregated public transport so that buses only carry certain types of employees, such as healthcare workers. This aspect of public transport showcases the glaring social divide that is deepening throughout European societies during the lockdown. Those dependent on directly using public transport, who are largely working class, embody the social consequences of the current crisis policy. Public transport is too often interpreted as a social service generously provided by public bodies, but this fails to acknowledge the depth to which the whole of society actually relies on public transport. Its carrying key workers is “holding civilization together;” we are all “transit dependent” in this sense”.

Public transport also unmasks the one-dimensional nature of current pandemics mitigation policies, which systematically privilege some groups over others. Thus, as home schooling leaves behind some students more than others, and closed playgrounds affect families who do not own garden plots more than those who have, so, it is the underprivileged working class which suffers most from reduced public transport schedules. In Germany, where pre-pandemic service levels were quickly reinstated to ensure distancing measures, public transport providers are facing massive budget shortfalls despite compensation packages. The picture does not look any better in London or Paris. In the US, unsustainable funding sources and public transit-hostile cultures has left passengers either stranded or exposed to overcrowded vehicles and a quick spread of the virus, especially among marginalised population groups.

Covid-19 may well not have killed off public transport as of now, but it has homogenised its users. The age of environmentally conscious, middle class bus passengers in European cities seems to be, at least temporarily, over – as they instead either work from home, or return to private cars. Yet there is some hope for public transport in all of this, particularly in making it cheaper and more egalitarian. Many European cities have stopped selling or checking tickets through the pandemic, creating the test conditions for fare-free public transport without even noticing it. With service and other key workers being celebrated as heroes of our time, might there also be better recognition, pay and conditions for those working on and using public transport? If it does, that will be one good long-term outcome for us all.

About the authors: Tonio Weicker works as postdoctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography. Within the PUTSPACE project, he investigates narratives and contestations of public transport modernisation policies in Eastern European cities. Wladimir Sgibnev is senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography and coordinator of the Mobilities and Migration research group.

They are currently working on the research project “Public transport as public space in European cities”(PUTSPACE), which investigates public transport encounters as sites of cultural diversity and social integration but also of marginalisation and systemic discrimination in five different European countries. In order to assess the potentially game-changing effect of the pandemic, the project has launched a short survey with an opportunity for follow-up interviews on the topic. 

Suggested further reading

Shaw, J. and Hesse, M. (2010), Transport, geography and the ‘new’ mobilities. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35: 305-312. doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00382.x

Budd, L., Bell, M. and Warren, A. (2011), Maintaining the sanitary border: air transport liberalisation and health security practices at UK regional airports. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36: 268-279. doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00424.x


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