How Cities Are Adapting Their Public Transport Systems in the Pandemic

written by:
Charmaine Liew
Published on:
May 27, 2020
Photo by Nicolas Weldingh on Unsplash

Public transport is the antithesis of social distancing, where having maximum patronage makes costs sustainable. With plummeting global ridership of 70 to 90% (refer to the graph below) and increased pressures to uphold the highest standards of safety, this pandemic has forced transit agencies, local governments and related stakeholders to urgently rethink how to address mobility needs sustainably in our cities. 

Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Public Transit usage by Moovit [1]

As cities carry out scenario planning and adapt in this transitional period, they can become better prepared to deal with unprecedented events and future pandemics of such a scale. Far-reaching challenges lie ahead, but opportunities exist for public transport to evolve so that resilience, sustainability and safety remains at the heart of transport systems that create successful, thriving cities. In instances where public transport is unable to solve the problem, there is opportunity for private players to bridge the gap.

Here are 4 response strategies cities have adopted in light of the implications brought about by COVID-19.

Leveraging digital solutions

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and International public transport agencies have encouraged cities to go cashless to reduce direct passenger interaction with drivers and ticketing agents. Along with this need to break the chain of infection, digital payments can also bring about more efficient services. Research has found [2] that transit authorities spend 3.5 times more on the physical collection of fares versus digital fares (14.5 cents a physical dollar versus 4.2 cents a digital dollar). This stems from reduced travel from collecting and depositing cash, shorter reconciliation times, reduced costs from accounting errors and lower risks of cash related crime. 

Apart from payments, another digital opportunity to ride on involves shifting to an operating model where every seat must be booked in advance through a combination of websites, apps, payment systems and telephony. Taking this proactive approach would enable social distancing by preventing overcrowding, improving customer confidence and encouraging moves back to public transport. 

For example, in order to manage demand, a staggered access to public transport stations is trialed in Beijing, China [3]. Beijing plans to experiment with a “subway by appointment” system to prevent crowding at entrances of subway stations. Users can use apps getting appointments to enter two of the busiest subway stations in Beijing during peak times.

Closer to home, SWAT Mobility is working with agencies in the region to instrument pre-booking and digital payment solutions in public transportation. This allows agencies to manage and control bus capacities, and operators to adapt to government regulations quickly. We work with cities of varying demographics, and place a strong focus on user-centric design to ensure that our solutions do not inadvertently exclude anyone due to the lack of access to relevant technology.

Adapting transport to changing demands

COVID-19 has changed people’s attitudes and propensities towards using public transport. Understanding how, where, when and why people will want to travel is fundamental in planning for an effective recovery. There is a need to encourage people to take public transport and accelerate the development of future transport systems to deliver successful city objectives. Approaches to public transportation will need to be adaptable and flexible, to respond rapidly as travel patterns and public health advisories change.

SWAT Mobility recognised that access to essential services like groceries and healthcare within neighbourhoods have been prioritised. Adjustments to our services such as MetroConnect in Sydney have been made to promote greater access not just to metro stations, but also retail stores and medical centres.

This time of reduced demand provides opportunities to rationalise and challenge traditional methods of planning routes, timetables and to scenario test different operating models that match the potential new demands. New operating models will have impacts on operating costs, how customers perceive the value of the service offering and the price that customers are willing or able to pay. 

In busy metropolitan cities which currently operate with only standing room available at peak hours, both demand and supply side measures have been enacted. This includes a staged return of the workforce (e.g. A, B and C teams) and flexible working hours. 

In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower has issued advisories [4] on workplace business continuity plans. This includes split shift team arrangements to de-risk employee concentration and ensure safety both in the workplaces and getting to workplaces. 

For these companies, transportation planning becomes a challenge when resources have to be balanced between different numbers of employees heading to work everyday, sticky bus contracts and at the same time guarantee employee safety. Without the right solution, this could spiral inefficiencies. At SWAT Mobility, we are helping our valued clients overcome this challenge.  

New services for essential employees

The pandemic has shown how much cities depend on their essential workers in this unyielding fight, and how reliant essential workers are on public transportation to get them to work. With global public transport services reducing in frequencies and operating hours, essential workers are impacted with heightened inconvenience and crowded buses and trains. Inevitably, keeping transit services open while protecting the health of passengers and staff requires sweeping adjustments and investments in new services to better prepare cities for the next pandemic. 

Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as other cities have augmented services to provide free of charge transportation to medical workers, deploying two special fleets of drivers dressed in protective uniforms with regularly disinfected vehicles.

In Manila, Philippines, and Bangkok, Thailand, SWAT Mobility has partnered with Toyota Mobility Foundation to provide connected, sanitised shuttles to frontline medical workers to ferry them between their homes and the hospitals in a full day operating service. Beyond work commutes, SWAT Mobility’s ride-sharing platform is also being used in Jakarta to enhance the transportation of COVID-19 test samples and test results in the city. 

Adapting transportation services to high risk communities and worker groups is key in the fight towards a new normal. 

Enhancing sanitisation and safety in transit systems

The highest priority for public transport is to maintain the safety of drivers, the frontline workforce and passengers. 

Employees are the most important assets in public transport. They must therefore be given special protection, both as individuals and in their capacity as drivers, supervisors, and ground operation staff. International associations like the Transport Research Board (TRB), the American Public Transport Association (APTA) and the International Organisation for Public Transport Authorities and Operators (UITP) provide updated factsheets, advisories and best practices for public transit agencies to get on board. 

In China, health control checkpoints have been added in many cities. Body temperatures are checked before access is allowed into a public transport station. In the event a fever is detected, entrance will be denied. In South Korea, hand sanitisers have been provided at the front entry and back exit of buses. Reports from Shanghai have shown the use of UV-light to clean vehicles [5] and in Hong Kong the use of robots to clean/disinfect vehicles [6].


Rapid and aggressive changes lie ahead, but the long-term goals for public transport remain the same: cleaner air, safer streets, reduced congestion, and more liveable neighbourhoods. Responses to meet these goals will vary depending on city circumstances and priorities. There is opportunity to hone in on the latest learnings of other cities in order to kickstart public transport activity whilst keeping in mind progress towards long-term goals. 

Find out more about SWAT Mobility’s technology to help you build a resilient, adaptable and sustainable transport system.

[1] Moovit: Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Public Transit usage
[2] Study by Visa: Cashless Cities: Realizing the Benefits of Digital Payments
[3] New York Post: Beijing tests ‘subway by appointment’ to reduce coronavirus crowding
[4] MOM: General advisory for workplace measures in response to DORSCON Orange situation in Singapore
[5] SCMP News: Shanghai is using these ultraviolet lights to disinfect buses