The coronavirus has heavily impacted passenger transport all over the world. And it will stay – at least for a couple of months. But even when we got a vaccination for this virus, the next virus will knock at our doors. We need to live with it.

“Fever scan” of passengers via thermal imaging at a train station.
(c) Ivan Smuk, 123RF

Public Transport is the backbone of mobility in most countries. Without the high performance and density of Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) systems like subways or metros most mega cities would collapse. Even mid-term less people will commute due to a higher share of home office usage and the replacement of some business travel with video conferences, there will be more demand than “safe” motorized individual transport can stem without clogging the city centers. So we need safe mass transit.

These MRT systems are very efficient and can transport up to 100 times more passengers than motorized private transport could transport with the same land use. But this strength is also their weakness as this leads to a higher infection risk if no countermeasures are taken. The same is true for other modes of transport not commonly considered as “public”, such as airplanes, taxis or even elevators. Public Transport is indispensable.

Stop the spread: face masks usage in an elevator
(c) belchonock, 123RF

The coronavirus pandemic was not unpredictable. It was not a so called “Black Swan“. Instead there were many warnings even from influential people like Bill Gates. Nevertheless most countries were not prepared. Just a few countries have learned their lessons from previous, local outbreaks of other viruses like SARS and MERS or simply learned quickly and could minimize the impact of COVID-19. Now the world can learn from these countries. The more we know about the virus and similar outbreaks, the better we can deal with it and restart using public transport with an acceptable infection risk. These safety measures will also help reducing other infections such as the seasonal flu, which also kills up to 30,000 people and causes massive loss in production through sick leave days of millions of infected people every year. What “acceptable” means is very much dependent on the remaining capacity of each country’s health system.

We could categorize the lessons learned into two types of action:

  1. Preventive actions, i.e. avoid further infections
  2. Containment actions, i.e. separate those, who got infected
Very creative: what is more dangerous – dying from the virus or from suffocation? 😉

Preventive Actions

Passive Protection – don’t get infected

The easiest way to avoid getting infected is to avoid any contacts with potentially infected other people. This is an appropriate first reaction up until other measures can be deployed. Obviously this “lock down” is not sustainable. But a reduction of contacts is: during the lock down we learned that many office tasks and conferences can be attended in “home office”, at least when child care and internet access is taken care of. This reduced transport also has a nice side benefit: it saves time and money for commute and travel and reduces its impact on our environment.

Read more about the topic in this blog post.

Distance: In case commute or travel with public transport cannot be avoided social distancing with distances of at least 1.5 meters between passengers is often not a feasible option. The risk of airborne infections via droplets seems to be by far the most frequent route of transmission. It decreases with about the second power of the distance. The more distance, the better. Some more distance can be gained by counter-cyclical commute or travel to avoid the high density during rush hours. Public Transport authorities could support this with flexible pricing schemes, giving rebates to passengers commuting during off-peak hours. Increasing distance is in clear contrast to the goal of maximizing vehicle utilization for higher transport efficiency. But equalizing the utilization can lead to a significantly lower risk and more comfort while maintaining a healthy utilization throughout the day.

Commuter trains or subways often get overcrowded in the city centers whereas there is enough space for passengers in the outskirts. Here is where intermodal travel chains and Mobility-as-a-Service can help: commuters, who live in the outskirts but work in the city centers could leave the trains before they get too crowded a couple of stations ahead of their final destination and proceed the last mile by bike or foot. The passenger’s route planners could give respective recommendations or offer incentives to leave overcrowded vehicles.

Limiting the individual infection risk in the overcrowded city center train:
The example shows a commute starting with the own car (no risk), then switching to the train, which gets more and more crowded with an increasing infection risk. The blue line shows how the last mile in the inner city on a bike would significantly reduce this risk.

Partitions or barriers such as taxi shields or separators are also effective, especially to protect the drivers in buses, trams or taxi-like services. Most of London’s back cabs and taxis in many other cities have such barriers built in by default already.

Another way to reduce this risk ist to wear face masks and eye protection. Even effective protection can only be achieved with properly handled medical FFP2 or FFP3 type masks. Non-medical masks mainly help to protect others but there is no evidence that they protect those who wear it. These simple masks could indirectly help by reminding people not to touch eyes and mouth with potentially contaminated hands. Medical masks and filters should be reserved for our health and emergency services.

Even contact or smear infections via contaminated hands don’t seem to be a main course of transmission, they should also be reduced. Using cashless payment options is a little step n this direction. A much higher risk might be the shard us of handle bars, stop buttons and touch screens. In these cases hand sanitizer should be prominently provided at all stops and handle bars regularly disinfected or at least cleaned.

Social distancing impossible. Airlines need to maximize their utilization.
(c) kasto, 123RF

Active Protection – don’t infect others

One reason why the the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak lead to a global pandemic was its ability to spread in “stealth mode”, i.e. infected and contagious people do not show specific symptoms (yet) but spread the virus. This needs to be prevented in Public Transport.

Symptom-independent screenings for coronavirus infections show that between 18% and up to 88% of infected people are asymptomatic.

This means that screening for common symptoms like fever or dry cough may have a high rate of false negatives, i.e. contagious people pass through and may infect others. So scanning for fever may help detecting some potentially contagious passengers but would not suffice. The effort to do so is high when done with manual temperature checks commonly used during the beginning of the pandemic. An alternative currently in test phase is the use of thermal imaging cameras at entrance barriers automatically blocking passengers from entering e.g. the subway area in case of higher body temperature.

Most reliable seems to be a test on the virus as such either using the scrape method or a blood test. Emirates has started to test all passengers prior to boarding their planes using the latter one. Due to the high effort this method might be appropriate for air travel but not in daily commute.

Bottom line we will not be able to prevent all contagious passengers attending Public Transport and measures need to be in place to reduce the risk of infecting other passengers.

A very effective way to reduce the risk of airborne infections seem to be the usage of face masks – even non-medical ones. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommends the usage of non-medical face masks in crowded places and Public Transport and a recent study describes why there is an urgency of universal masking during an outbreak.

Contagious droplets from a sneeze can spread the virus several meters without a mask
(c) James Gathany – CDC Public Health Image library ID 11162, Public Domain

A good ventilation and filters in air condition appliances of vehicles and buildings can further reduce the risk of airborne infections.

The risk of smear or contact infections can be reduced via the removal or disinfection or at least frequent and thorough cleaning of dispensable touch points such as cash, handle bars, or stop buttons.

Containment Actions

Even with the best preventive measures in place infections will still happen. To minimize their spread, additional actions to contain infections are needed.

Contact tracing app from the Indian government
(c) Amlan Mathur

In case of any symptoms or after being in close contact with an infected person, passengers should get themselves tested and stay at home until they received the test results. As soon as a passenger has been tested positive on the virus,

  1. Passengers should be quarantined,
  2. Health authorities need to be informed by default,
  3. All closer contacts of the last 14 days need to be informed and asked to self isolate as well until they have been tested negative.

Public Transport providers come into play at point 3, where contact tracing will play a key role. As an example the first coronavirus outbreak at an automotive supplier in Germany could successfully be contained due to the meticulous tracing of all contacts from “patient zero” and strict quarantines for all contacts.

Contact Tracing Apps

Contact tracing apps and electronic surveillance during quarantine can help achieving this and make it scalable. Every kind of surveillance bears the risk of misuse. Public Transport authorities might integrate such contact tracing functionality into their electronic ticketing systems and even make them mandatory. Finding the balance between privacy concerns, inclusion of non smartphone users and public health interest will for sure be a challenge with constantly changing goal posts.

Manual contact tracing is an evidence-based medical approach to slowing the spread of infectious diseases. It deals with identifying infected persons – and who they might have come in contact with – so that they do not go about infecting others.

Instead of staying manual, though, technology wants to have a say in it. That gave birth to contact tracing apps. These apps will make use of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functions of the smartphone to identify those that an infected case has come in contact with. That way, it is easier for healthcare personnel to locate those people and place them in isolation.

Things are not all rosy for contact tracing apps, though. If a recent Express VPN research on contact tracing apps is worth anything, up to 84% of people believe that the government will violate their data and privacy with these apps. More than 70% of respondents also believe that tech companies are in the same shoes here. In a time and age where people care about their privacy, that might affect the adoption rate of these apps. We might need about 80% adoption for them to work.

Artificial Intelligence used during the Pandemic

Brands like Uber are also leveraging AI to ensure drivers adhere to the facemask policy. These drivers need to take an in-app selfie before they can be certified online and ready to pick up fares. The same is true for riders who have to confirm they have taken certain safety measures before they qualify for a ride. Uber has confirmed that the AI does not store the facial data, neither does it confirm such against previously-submitted data. However, how far can we take such a claim?

Besides the above, AI-powered robotics has also stepped up nice for us. Some hospital wards in Wuhan had entire wings under the control of robots only. This might also be an option e.g. for disinfecting public transport vehicles.

How does your Public Transport provider or authority deal with the pandemic? What else actions do they take and what experience do they make? Share your lessons learned in the comments!

The New Normal: Public Transport and the Virus
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