BUSWORLD ACADEMY THIRD WEBINAR (1): HOW TO RESTART BUS OPERATIONS AFTER A LOCKDOWN?

In the series webinars Busworld Academy organizes about the impact of Covid-19, in the third webinar held on 30 April, five executive speakers shared their experiences and insights, and try to answer the burning “After Covid-19” questions. Hygienic measures, social distancing and capacity are the topics CEO's of public transport companies and politicians around the world are very much concerned about. This third webinar was visited by 930 bus and coach professionals. (PART 1)

The first Busworld Academy “How can governments contribute to the survival of bus and coach operators during and after a covid-19 crisis?” was followed by a second edition about “Generating income, reducing costs during Covid-19”. Now the third in the sequence is what to do after restrictions and bans on travel may be lifted, partially. The revitalization of society after a lockdown will be probably a phased and difficult process with social distancing and hygienic needs for both passengers and staff. How do public transport agencies and operators prepare for this? What are first experiences of those who already started up again? What measures are being taken in phases of the process? How can small and middle sized bus operators start up again after several weeks or months without income? Questions and topics five speakers are adressing: Mrs. Elke Van den Brandt, Minister of Transportation of the Brussels Government, Belgium; Mr. Li Feng, Deputy Director at the Jinan Public Transport Group Co., Ltd., China; Mr. Prasanna Patwardhan, President BOCI, India; Graig Cipriano, Acting President for MTA Bus Company and Acting Senior Vice President of New York City Transit (NYCT) Department of Buses; Rakhi Basu, Worldbank and Affiliate on the Smart Pandemic Management Team at UC Berkeley.

Picking up

Demand for bus services is evolving during this Covid-19 pandemic, said Busworld Academy Director Jan Deman in his opening statement. This was shown in a graph from “Check My Bus” that illustrated that demand for ticket sales for long distance travel is growing the last weeks in comparison with week 14 of 2 April. This in countries were the number of Covid-19 contaminations is going down. But if week 14 is compared to February 27 in Italy, demand plunged by 78%. For Central and South America where Covid-19 was just beginning, the degrease in demand was not as heavy as in Europe. Deman concluded that confidence in the bus and coach sector is restoring quite fast when Covid-19 is over its peak. “We see that if Covid-19 contaminations drop, the demand for bus and coach tickets is picking up quite fast”. It gave a positive start to this third Busworld Academy webinar.

Jinan

His company did not face a total lock down of transport but nevertheless saw the volume drop down to less then 5%. Mr. Li Feng of the Jinan Public Transport Group Co., Ltd., mentioned that Jinan has 9 million inhabitants. The bus is the most important way of public transport. There are more than 5,800 buses with 13.000 employees on 346 routes. Before the Covid-19 crisis Jinan transported every day 2 million passengers who are making their trip by scheduling a route via an app. Today only 80,000 travellers go by bus per day. The Jinan group uses intelligent route planning software. To handle the Covid-19 crisis special trained staff disinfects the vehicles, from floor to roof including seats etc. For the drivers the company is providing the necessary protection like facemasks and gloves. Drivers have to measure their temperature and when this is over 37.3 degrees Celsius, he or she is forbidden to drive and have to go into quarantine. The same applies to the passengers: wear a mask and take temperature. Also they have to show their ID. Social distancing is in place which means that capacity of the bus is reduced by at least 50%. Windows must remain open. Service teams keep watch in the bus also to point out passengers have to maintain social distance. These teams are made up of mostly bus drivers who are now because of decrease in demand, temporarily out of a job. “Al these measures are put together in a manual and spread to all the bus companies through out China in order to prevent spreading of Covid-19 and keep it under control”, as Feng says during this webinar. “To restart business full the first step has to be taken by the central government. Our company put a lot of afford in communicating to the passengers what is going on and what to do during the travels.” The Jinan Group operates more or less half of the total bus fleet during this crisis. To guarantee social distancing in the coming weeks or months they are thinking of increasing the frequency on the bus routes.

Brussels

Belgium will slowly open up coming Monday 4 May. The country has several governments: federal, one for Brussels, one for Flanders and one for Wallonia, Brussels is the capital and has its own Minister of Transportation, Elke Van den Brandt. She attended the webinar to explain what “opening up” means for public transport in her city and especially for the bus operations by public transport company MIVB-STIB. “Life in Brussels like in many other places in the world is down. Demand for public transport is only 15% of what was normal. Because of social distancing people need to keep 1,5 metres distance, also in a bus or tram. We have put stickers on the seats which seat may be used and which not. The police is helping us to maintain this. This has a huge impact on the capacity of the buses. It can be a bus is full with only 11 people on board. Also people are now mostly working from home so demand has dropped of course.” Nevertheless she says ticket price stay the same because raising prices is according to her not the right answer to meet the problems and will have a negative aspect on people using public transport. “We took hygienic measures like cleaning the buses and providing facemasks for the drivers. At first there were not enough masks available because healthcare workers got priority in this. Payment in the bus is done without cash, just by card. These measurements are taken to maintain public transport but minimizing the risk for employees and passengers. We had put up a good information system using all media outlets to inform the people. In return we got a lot of nice messages on social media from people saying, “We love you STIB” or “We miss you STIB”. A lot of support and appreciation from the people.”

Capacity

She emphasizes that opening up this Monday raises a big question for public transport in terms of capacity. MIVB-STIB is working at the maximum of its capacity with the 1,5 metre of social distancing. “This moment every driver who is available is driving our buses, so we use maximum capacity. That might give a problem because public transport is crucial in order to re-open society. The federal government has therefore decided that when using public transport wearing a mask is obligated. This in order to increase also the capacity of the public transport system. We will monitor this in order to avoid people coming too close to each other. But it will be less strict than in the current situation.” She explains that MIVB-STIB has been very flexible in this crisis-situation by adapting bus lines in frequency and hour-scheme. Especially those lines running to and from hospitals and healthcare centres. “With re-opening schools etc the company need to adjust planning taking into consideration also the cleaning of the vehicles.”

Flatten peak hours

Brussels sees flatten peak hours and spreading it over a longer period of time as part of the solution. “In Belgium we have the incredible 9 to 5 mentality. We start working at nine in the morning and stop at five in the afternoon. This means we have enormous peak hours. So with this newly discovered “tele-working” we hope that we can flatten those peak hours. The downside is it has impact on my politics. I am always promoting public transport, telling people to love it and make use of it. Now I have a different message: If you love our public transport, if you love MIVB- STIB please go by bike or on foot. Leave it for those who really need it, who can not go on foot or by bike to where they have to go. Research shows that people use public transport in Brussels only for short distances like a few kilometres. Solidarity is now the message!” To facilitate this Brussels is putting 40 kilometre of extra bike lanes in place and is expanding the pedestrian zones up to 100 kilometre of streets. “Our main political message is now that we need a modal shift from people using their car to biking and walking. If everyone uses their own car we will have more and more traffic jams.”

New York

New York with over 8 million people is probably the worlds hardest hit city by the corona virus with 20% of all confirmed cases of the US. At the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) there are over 3,600 people diagnosed with Covid-19 from which 2,800 are in quarantine and 100 fatalities. MTA is the largest public transport network in North-America. It is quasi city state benefit operation. All the work is done with in-house forces, no contractors are hired. The bus operation has 18,000 employees from which now over a 1,000 have Covid-19. At the Covid-peak 4,000 workers were absent. From them 32 people from the bus family, as Graig Cipriano calls the Bus Operation, did not survive.

MTA with an annual operating budget of 3 billion US-dollar carried before Covid-19 2,2 million daily customers each day using 54,000 bus trips on 327 bus routes with 6,000 buses. March first there was the first corona-case, March 7 New York declared a state of emergency with a partial lock down, 22 March the Governor of New York State issued a lock down for all non-essential industries, the same day MTA went into an “essential service plan”. Although ridership is 80% lower, MTA still provides 70 to 75% of its services to the public who need to go to their work place providing the need for social distancing.”

MTA started with disinfection the buses every 72 hours using also anti-microbial shield treatment in a 1,000 buses. Drivers are equipped with masks, gloves, sanitizers and seat covers are ordered. All public transport employees are now mandatory to wear facemasks. A reardoor entry policy is put in place to avoid contact at the fair box between driver and passenger and also the first six feet in the bus is closed by a vinyl shielding. MTA was according to Cipriano in the process of implementing a “Tap and Go” payment system. “Now we are accelerating that so we can have all-door boarding with “Tap and Go”. On express buses we chained of the first two rows. Besides we implemented temperature testing across MTA and will be doing that on a 24/7 basis when we start our full service again. People with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) are send home and may return when they are three days free of fever.”

Finance

May 15 becomes an important date for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and surrounding states. Decisions are taken in how essential businesses can open up. Cipriano expects more ridership on the MTA buses. “Now we are operating at 70% of a peak service with 20% of the normal ridership which means 400.000 customers each day. To maintain social distancing we need a robust service when customers are coming back to the system. We will work with our union counterparts to prepare for coming back to full service.”

We have not collected fairs for about six weeks because of social distancing and the six foot barrier we installed in our buses. So the financial situation of MTA is very precarious. We have done some “bonding” although it increases our debt also because cash flow was becoming an issue. Public transport is funded now due to Covid-19 with 3.9 billion dollars and we have asked for another 4 billion. So this is a challenge. But MTA and public transport is key to open up the economy in New York and the country.”

Keeping save

For the near future we are looking at new frontline protection for our employees but also at social distancing in-house, like in our depots were hundreds of people are walking in and out daily. We need to keep these people save which is very important for the bus system it self.” Wether coaches can be of assistance to expand capacity in order to maintain social distancing in public transport, Cipriano said it would be a major paradigm switch. “We operate in a heavy unionised environment. But these are unprecedented times, so what's best for our customers would preside and yes it would be an option.” In this regard Elke Brandt from Brussels sees also the unionised sector as a problem, but also she mentioned current regulations as an obstacle. “But if the future demands it, we are open for all suggestions.”

This article is a transcript of the first part of the webinar.

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