Seven months after the United States declared COVID-19 a national health emergency, subway ridership across the country remains 36% below last year’s level. According to Apple Mobility Trends (an imperfect, but commonly accepted measure of commuters’ intentions) public-transport ridership around the globe remains deeply depressed due to fears of contagion. Despite evidence from world capitals that passengers aren’t super-spreaders so long as they wear masks and remain silent, urban residents are still hesitant to return to public transport—and many of them don’t see the necessity to commute when downtowns have become ghost towns in an era of work-from-anywhere.
Yet it remains imperative for cities to rebuild trust in public transport—their very survival depends on it. Post-COVID gridlock, soaring carbon emissions, and homes far removed from jobs that can’t be performed via Zoom are all likely consequences if the public transport system doesn’t recover. This underscores why it is the backbone of urban areas.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE AROUND RISK
The first step, paradoxically, has been to nudge residents toward walking, cycling, and “micromobility“—modes that are naturally socially distanced. “The winner of the pandemic is the bicycle,” says Michael Frankenberg, CEO of Hacon, a mobility software company. “Many cities have been very agile in repurposing streets for pop-up cycling lanes.” The United Kingdom plans to invest $2.57 billion to make many of those changes permanent, while the city of Bogotá, Colombia, aims to increase the share of bicycle trips from 7% to half of all commutes. “The bike is not necessarily a competitor to public transport,” Frankenberg adds. “Bike and public transport can complement each other in a very efficient way. Cycling is a great way to cover the first or last mile of a trip, but it’s not always suitable for longer commutes.”