Beyond the immediate crisis:

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and
public transport strategy

SARS-CoV-2 has shocked the world. Urban mobility is no exception. #stayathome is not only trending on social media, it is what most people do. With passenger numbers down by up to 95% in some European cities, public transport has been hit especially hard by the Corona crisis. Public transport authorities and companies are doing everything they can to tackle the immediate operational challenges that the crisis is confronting them with.  

As we move from immediate crisis into the next phase of the pandemic, however, longer-term strategic considerations come to the fore. This paper aims to clarify the medium and longer-term effects that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will have on urban mobility and public transport strategy. We build on our reading of the most recent scientific debates on the pandemic, expert mobility and public transport knowledge, and targeted interviews with public transport operators, authorities and experts as well as with new mobility players. 

Our major findings are: 

The Pandemic 

The current crisis is only the beginning. We are approaching a second pandemic phase (calibration) that might indeed last until the second half of 2021. Until then, we might experience repeated infection waves and a back-and-forth between periods of more and less restrictive measures.  A full lift of restrictions remains unlikely until the pandemic concludes. For this to happen, an effective vaccine needs to be developed and widely distributed. 

Mobility Behavior 

While mobility demand will rebound after the initial crisis phase, it is likely to remain below pre-crisis levels at least throughout the calibration phase.  Given the back-and-forth of restrictions, mobility demand will remain volatile throughout the calibration phase. Due to the comparatively high perceived (and actual) infection risk, many people might continue to avoid public transport over the coming months. People are likely to get used to a more flexible way of choosing different transport modes from day to day. 

Public Transport Strategy 

Beyond the current crisis management, public transport authorities and companies need to formulate long-term strategies. It would be a mistake to sideline or halt strategic initiatives just because they do not directly contribute to crisis management. We find that five initiatives have a crucial role to play in navigating the pandemic in the years to come. These initiatives are public transport offer expansion, multi-modal integration, simple and flexible pricing, pushing digitalization and building agile organizations.