In cities around the world, public transportation systems are key to getting workers back on the job and restarting devastated economies. Yet methods of getting around, ranging from trains and buses to ferries and bicycles, will have to be re-imagined for the coronavirus era.
In Europe in particular, mass transit is shaping up as a new focus of governments working to get their countries back on track while responding to the pandemic that now has a death toll of over 120,000 people across the continent.
In the capitals of hard-hit Italy, Spain, France and Britain, standing cheek-to-jowl with fellow commuters was as much a part of the morning routine in pre-coronavirus times as a steaming shot of espresso or a crispy croissant.
That’s going to have to change as authorities try to address economic considerations without losing any hard-won gains that social distancing strategies achieved in controlling the spread of the virus.
Solutions include putting red stickers on the floor to tell bus travelers in Milan how far apart to stand. The Dutch are putting on longer, roomier trains and many cities including Berlin are opening up more lanes to cyclists. In Britain, bus passengers are entering through the middle or rear doors to reduce the virus risks for drivers.
Announcing a gradual easing of France’s strict lockdown, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe called public transport a “key measure for the economic recovery” yet acknowledged concerns among passengers.
“I understand the apprehension of a good number of our compatriots before taking a metro, a train, a bus, a tram, which are sometimes very densely packed,” he said.
In New York, where millions normally ride on crowded subways, buses and suburban trains daily but where ridership has fallen more than 90 percent, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered officials to submit a plan for how train and subway cars will be disinfected every night, building on an enhanced cleaning regime put in place in early March.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority head Patrick Foye said last week that the MTA is also looking at other measures including expanding a program that has already performed temperature checks on 35,000 MTA employees. Foye urged government and business officials to consider including staggered work hours in any plans to reopen businesses, to help reduce crowding.
Amtrak, which carried more than 12 million passengers on its Boston-to-Washington, D.C. trains in the most recent fiscal year, already has limited bookings to 50 percent of capacity and restricted some seating areas in rail cars. Going forward, it will offer enhanced services on its mobile apps to reduce contact points; one would allow passengers to pre-order food to pick up on board, to reduce waiting time in the dining car.
When and how to ease restrictions, keep people safe and prevent a second wave of infections is a matter of intense debate around the world.
“There will never be a perfect amount of protection,” said Josh Santarpia, a microbiology expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who is studying the coronavirus. “It’s a personal risk assessment. Everybody has to decide, person by person, what risk they’re willing to tolerate.”
As restrictions loosen, health authorities will be watching closely for any sign of a resurgence of the virus. Germany has reported a slight uptick in the infection rate since some small businesses were allowed to reopen just over a week ago, but authorities said it was too soon to say whether the loosening was to blame.
France, Spain and Greece were among the latest countries to announce road maps for reopening businesses and schools. There will be more trains, trams and buses to spread passengers out and masked faces will be the new normal almost everywhere.
Starting Wednesday, the Dutch national railway service began boosting its skeleton coronavirus lockdown timetable by bringing longer intercity trains back into service to make it easier for passengers to stay apart.
The capacity of Milan’s metro system will be slashed to just 350,000 passengers a day, compared to 1.3 million on normal workdays. Meanwhile, the region’s commuter train service will be able to guarantee only 300,000 round-trip journeys, down over 60% from its earlier capacity.
Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, is calling for staggered working hours and more working from home to help deal with the decrease — in particular when more shops and commercial business open starting May 18. Access to train stations and metro stations also will be controlled and limited starting next Monday, when the first easing of the strict two-month lockdown begins.
In Spain, under a gradual easing of restrictions starting from May 10, capacity in most long-distance buses and trains will be gradually increased from the current 30% of the capacity.
Around the world, confirmed infections stood at more than 3.1 million — including 1 million in the U.S. — and the confirmed global death toll topped 219,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The true toll is believed to be much higher because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and deliberate under-counting by some governments.
For millions around the world, the advice so far is still to stay home.