The rise of the omicron variant is pushing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic further into the future. It remains to be seen if this new variant will wreak as much havoc as previous ones on public health, the economy and urban transport across Asia and the Pacific. Despite this uncertainty, we have learned a great deal about how the pandemic has affected passenger transport from our recent experiences.
First of all, waves of infection have been associated with drops in overall mobility levels. These drops were generally bigger in earlier phases when authorities were more willing to impose strong restrictions on mobility. Second, government and transport operator responses to COVID-19 were mainly focused on ensuring health and well-being rather than facilitating mobility. The decline in public transport use has been particularly strong, with people shifting to online activities, private cars and motorbikes, and – to a lesser extent – walking and cycling. It is also clear that public transport systems have recovered slowly when mobility restrictions are relaxed or lifted.
Accelerated growth of car and motorbike use plus struggling public transport systems will, in the long run, intensify the transport-related problems experienced by cities in Asia and the Pacific, including extensive road congestion, physical inactivity, air and noise pollution and rapidly growing greenhouse gas emissions. The most vulnerable social groups such as the poor, the elderly and residents of informal settlements will remain excluded from private car use and ownership. Many in those groups will also be excluded from online activity, albeit to varying degrees. Moreover, because vulnerable social groups are often most dependent on public transport, they are also most affected by cuts in service provision and fare increases, which are expected to help offset the financial losses which operators have suffered in the past two years.
Of course, the effects of COVID-19 pandemic, including policy responses, differ markedly across Asian and Pacific cities and countries. Compare a city like Mashhad in the Islamic Republic of Iran with Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Mashhad went through five waves spread across 2020 and 2021, while Phnom Penh largely escaped high infection levels until March 2021. Still, there are many commonalities in behavioural, policy and operational responses. As a case in point, the government of heavily car-oriented Phnom Penh suspended public bus operations in early 2021 and only reopened services in November 2021.
While these trends are causes for concern, the pandemic also offers an opportunity to rethink transport planning in Asian and Pacific cities. It has highlighted the need to making urban transport more environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive and resilient to disruptions. This will require a multi-faceted approach, in which different interventions are tailored to local conditions in cities and countries across the region.
First, it will be essential to restore public trust in public transport as the backbone of urban transport. Running a full schedule of services while minimizing the risk of infection on vehicles can help recover ridership levels. Second, creating segregated lanes for cycling and more space for walking is also important. This can be accompanied by training programmes to give more people the confidence and skills to cycle safely.
Once the pandemic is over, additional, mutually reinforcing interventions can be promoted . For instance, public transport should be integrated with paratransit by minibuses, rickshaws and motorbikes into a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) system. MaaS brings different transport services together via a single digital interface – an app on smartphones – where users can find information on the best routes, book and pay for services. The benefits of MaaS will be strengthened if programmes are set up to reduce digital exclusion through investment in digital connectivity.
The planning of public transport and paratransit provision needs to be aligned closely with that for new urban development. The concept of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) can be employed to create compact, mixed-use communities with housing, office, retail and leisure facilities along mass public transit, stations and terminals. Streets around stations and terminals can be equipped with high-quality, safe and comfortable infrastructure for walking, cycling and e-scooter use. This will not only improve users’ experience of the first and last leg of MaaS journeys, but also make those modes more attractive for short trips. However, care must be taken that new and retrofitted developments are socially inclusive.
Measures to discourage private car and motorbike use are also needed. Examples include road pricing, limited parking provision, setting parking rates to internalize opportunity costs, establishing car and motorbike free zones, and undertaking minimal road expansion. Resistance to these measures can be fierce but can be mitigated through improving public understanding about how road construction increases car use and congestion in the long run, and by creating convenient, efficient and affordable alternatives to private motorized transport using participatory planning approaches.
As we enter the post-COVID-19 period, city and national governments should think beyond the transport sector and strengthen collaboration with other, related sectors. They can learn more about how different cities have responded to the pandemic in the ESCAP study Enhancing the Resilience of Urban Transport in Asian Cities after COVID-19, which includes an assessment of impacts of COVID-19 on mobility and recommendations for policy-makers. The ESCAP Review of Developments in Transport in Asia and the Pacific (2021) also offers a comprehensive overview of the region’s experiences and policy options for making passenger transport more sustainable, inclusive and resilient. Enhancing resiliency in transport systems also features prominently in the Ministerial Declaration on Sustainable Transport Development and next Regional Action Programme on Sustainable Transport Development in Asia and the Pacific (2022-2026), adopted by the fourth Ministerial Conference on Transport held in December 2021.