However, public transportation, whether provided by public or private companies, has not given up. On the rails as well as in the urban and interurban networks, staff have remained admirably mobilized to ensure the continuity of public transportation services.
In France, public transportation, like air transportation, has made itself available on the health front, moving patients to the less busy hospitals, or, conversely, health teams from the least affected regions to the East of France or the Paris region.
The health high-speed trains (TGV) will go down in the history of this period, and many health coaches and medical team transporters also took their part in this exceptional mobilization.
However, public transportation, particularly urban networks, have been seriously weakened during this period.
Their fixed costs are such that the collapse in ridership, as well as in farebox revenues in France with the massive development of short-time working, places the transit authorities in charge of the networks and their operators before a substantial financial squeeze. The share of passenger revenue represents on average 32% of operating expenditure in France. This ratio is higher in other European countries such as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Germany or Sweden, where it exceeds 50%.
Public transportation in the first line of the lockdown exit
Yet public transportation, especially urban networks, will be at the heart of the challenges of the lockdown exit.
It is their very mission, and their economic models, based on the massification of traffic in order to avoid congestion in cities, are taken back by the health crisis we are going through. Every day in normal times, one in five European uses public transportation. In Europe, 35% of journeys to and from work are made by public transportation; this figure is even higher for the major urban areas – in the Greater Paris region (Île-de-France), the share of public transportation even reaches 65% in its central part.
The health safety of passengers and staff is the priority issue in the lockdown exit strategy of public transportation and will become an essential part of the nations’ health challenges in the coming months.
The period of release from containment and resumption of activity will unfortunately not be a “return to normal” for public transportation.
Revenues will remain low due to lower traffic, linked to a gradual resumption of economic activities; costs will remain significantly higher with the need to offer sufficient capacity to maintain acceptable barrier distances, including the wearing of masks compulsory for all, and the continuation of actions to protect personnel, daily disinfection and information that will require investment in additional personnel and equipment.
This critical financial situation will put all the public transportation networks in a very difficult situation for several months to come.
Avoiding the massive return of cars to the cities
The uncertainties that still surround the knowledge of the virus and its treatment, as well as a long-lasting mistrust of citizens, may lead to a massive return to the car usage and to self-driving for essential journeys, especially at rush hour to get to work.
This is the second challenge of this crisis: to avoid a return of car congestion and the pollution associated to it, loss of time and deterioration in quality of life.
If we have to manage the health emergency, we must also anticipate measures and investments to ensure that lockdown exit does not hinder our efforts to fight environmental damage and global warming.
It is now time to consider measures to maintain a high level of teleworking, spreading out the opening hours of schools, public services and businesses, deploying additional public transportation services on the outskirts to relieve congestion on the main roads and making electric-assisted bicycles available in the heart of cities. Empty of their usual traffic until the lockdown exit, motorways and city centers are available to imagine and organize these new services without delay.
These solutions will not solve everything, but it would be inconsistent not to explore them and to hand our cities over to new disorders.
A European fund to avoid the financial collapse of the public transportation sector
The public transportation sector is facing a lasting challenge to its economic model; at the same time, the usual clients and financing-parties, i.e. local authorities and their Public Transit Authorities, are also being hit by the crisis. They will also suffer from a drop in tax revenues or an increase in their costs to support populations.
What path will they then be able to take? Will communities still have the means to extend their services to these peripheral and rural areas that will be hit by the coming economic and social crisis? Will they desire to postpone investments in “clean” fleets?
It now seems increasingly essential for the European Commission to urgently set up a fund to support public transportation activity in Europe. This fund, perhaps housed in the European funds for regions and communities, will enable operators to continue operating during the crisis, but could also serve as a catalyst for economic growth once the pandemic has subsided and the pulse of European countries starts beating again.
Such means are already in place in several geographical areas. In the United States, the Coronavirus Protection Fund will dedicate 25 billion US dollars to public transportation. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority alone, which has been particularly hard hit by the crisis, will receive 4 billion US dollars in funding.
In the United Kingdom, as part of the emergency measures announced by the Department of Transportation, a massive plan to support public transportation (train and bus) has been put in place to ensure continuity of service for transportation operators.
This special fund to support public transportation activity – to adapt economic models to the severe needs of the pandemic – is consistent with the ambitions of the Green Deal. The heart of the European project is the free movement of goods and people.
Every day in normal times, one in five Europeans uses public transportation. The most recent legislation, such as the new mobility law in France, makes it possible to better link the transportation offer and, more generally, mobility in the country. This objective, at a time when peripheral and rural areas are likely to be the most affected by the coronavirus crisis, becomes even more necessary in the name of collective solidarity and in order to build a more harmonious and sustainable society.
The Green Deal must remain the EU’s priority. It is about sustainable mobility. It should be reminded that, according to the European Environment Agency, 96% of EU citizens living in urban areas are still exposed to harmful levels of air pollutants. And, that the environmental cost of transportation in the broadest sense is estimated at several hundred billion euros per year. The end of containment must not lead to an abandonment of policies in favor of “soft” and collective mobility and modal shift. By supporting public transportation, the EU will contribute to restoring the confidence of passenger-citizens in clean modes of transportation.