With lower levels of virus in circulation, can risk be reduced enough to make busier trains and buses workable? International evidence suggests yes.
South Korea has kept its daily confirmed Covid cases below 100 since the end of March, but in February had a higher rate of cases than the UK has now.
On public transport in its capital, Seoul, safety precautions include public guidelines, daily cleaning and disinfecting of the vehicles, hand sanitiser stations, and measuring temperatures of employees before and after shifts. (This is different from measuring temperature using infrared scanning, which is extremely unreliable.)
They have “staff evacuation plans” to isolate members of staff and their whole team if any member shows symptoms. There are dedicated transport services for passengers entering from abroad, who are required to self-isolate for a fortnight.
There has not been a “lockdown” as such within South Korea, and individuals have not faced travel restrictions as in the UK. The London Tube, by comparison, saw a 95% decrease in journeys due to lockdown.
Normally, public transport is responsible for around 65% of daily traffic for Seoul’s ten million people: 40% on metro, 25% by bus.
With work-from-home, Seoul’s car traffic decreased by 7.2% in March and public transport passengers by 34.5% compared to January, but not 95% or anything like that. Public transport usage has steadily increased since, and is estimated to have reached pre-Covid-19 levels.
More services have been added to limit congestion. Live updates are available for people planning journeys, and are communicated to passengers when congestion is above “130%”. Above “150%”, more active crowd control is enforced, and masks are mandatory.
The normal level of crowding in Seoul metro is lower than London Underground, but it is busy.
In France, across May, of 150 new confirmed covid-19 “clusters”, zero were from transport. In Japan, too, of all the infection clusters following their lifting of a state of emergency, none have been tracked to trains. Their commuter trains seems considerably more densely crowded, even during the pandemic, than the London Underground, in turn the most crowded transport in the UK.
One factor may be that people in Japan tend to travel in silence: speaking spreads droplets. Widespread masking, and limited exposure time given that people aren’t on buses or trains long, help; ventilation may do so too.
Passengers and transport workers will and should demand adequate safety precautions when travelling. This includes wider necessary changes as outlined in Solidarity 555, which would reduce overall trips and increase cycling and walking, and specific workplace protections. Perhaps even stricter enforcement of face-mask wearing.
More research is needed, but such demands should not, I think, necessarily include a limit for example on London Underground passengers to 15% or even 25% of pre-Covid peak operating levels.