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What’s the future for public transport?

The global Covid-19 pandemic has affected, perhaps for ever, every part of our lives, from how and where we work to how we shop and how we socialise – and how we get from A to B. Now, as life gets back to normal, questions remain about how public transport will recover, and whether it is fit for purpose in today’s city.

In February 2020, the London Underground was rumbling along as usual beneath the roads and pavements of the British capital. Up to 5 million passenger journeys were being made each day – tourists, shoppers and commuters all making their way around 400km of track.

But then in March, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the UK. Office workers stayed at home, tourists stopped coming. As the reality of the pandemic began to sink in, not only did the need for public transport dry up but also the idea of sharing a poorly ventilated carriage with hundreds of other people lost its appeal.

A similar story was playing out in cities around the world. In Berlin, for example, sales of public transport tickets plummeted by 70 to 75 per cent. In Munich they were down by up to 85 per cent. Entire tram and subway lines were discontinued.

Now, in many European cities at least, people are going back to the office and the shopping crowds are coming back. But public transport has suffered from both the disruption and the lack of income.

And there is also a sense that things cannot – and, perhaps, should not – ever be the same. Everything about cities – what purpose they serve, who they serve, how we interact with them and, crucially, how we move around them – is due a rethink.

Even before the pandemic, there were economic and social shifts – particularly the emergence of Uber-style ride-sharing apps – that have threatened to make the bus, tube and train look a little antiquated. But, at the same time, public transport has also never been more important.

Why we need public transport

City authorities are under pressure to cut congestion and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and access to safe and secure public transportation networks helps keep those emissions under control.

In the US, for example, car journeys make up around 47% of a typical two-car family’s carbon footprint, according to the FTA. That makes it the single largest source of domestic emissions. So swapping the car for public transport is an easy emissions-reducing win.

The idea of the 15-minute city, where everything you need is within a 15-minute journey, has also been growing traction recently as a more sustainable model for city living, and good, efficient public transport is a key part of that model.

How to get back on the bus

Public transport is one of the easiest ways to cut congestion and emissions in urban settings – if it’s done right. The key is to make sure that the layout of a public transport system makes it accessible to a high proportion of people.

That means having enough stations, so there’s always one a short distance away, wherever you live or work, and a comprehensive network of local buses and trains and trams that take you to larger transport hubs.

It also means a high frequency of service, and lots of up-to-date, readily available and accessible information. Put simply, we have to make it easy for everyone to choose public transport.

None of this is earth-shattering news, of course. But implementing it does come with a price-tag. But we need to revitalise public transport systems, for the sake of our cities, our society and the planet. And the investment we make will pay dividends in terms of positive environmental impact and, ultimately, in terms of quality of life.