COVID made many of us avoid public transport – what will it take to get us back on the bus?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • A global survey by transit app Moovit asked people how COVID-19 has affected their use of public transport.
  • It also asked what would encourage them to use public transit more often during the pandemic.
  • More than half of Americans are using public transit less or not at all.
  • Many people now want data on how crowded services are, as well as disinfected vehicles, stations and stops.

Up to one-third of people in some cities have stopped using public transport because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they’ll ever get back on board is impossible to predict, but according to research into the travel habits of people in 104 cities across 28 countries, lockdowns, the rise of remote working, and stay-home orders have all meant a reduction in the volume of people commuting.

In the Greek city of Thessaloniki, 34.3% of people no longer use public transport because of the pandemic. Additionally, 45% said their use of public transport has reduced. That’s one of the findings in the Global Public Transport Report 2020, compiled by the transit app and data business Moovit.

Across the US, around half of all commuters told Moovit they are using public transit services less frequently as a consequence of the pandemic. By comparison, about 49% of people in Spain said their use of public transport has remained the same, or even increased, despite the pandemic.

A graph showing the impact of COVID-19 on public transport usage
Get on the bus? No thanks, say half of Americans. Image: Moovit 2020 Global Public Transport Report

The sound of the crowd

Asked what would make them more likely to use public transport again, commuters in Thessaloniki cited a number of concerns. The top issue, cited by almost 70% of respondents there, was the desire for more buses on the road to lessen the chances of vehicles being uncomfortably full. Not far behind, 61.5% said they want vehicles, stations and stops to be disinfected.

“We’re living in a time where data is more important than ever before,” Yovav Meydad, Moovit’s chief growth and marketing officer, says of the report. “Especially in the public transportation industry, big data can help cities and transit agencies gain insights into what riders need in order to increase mass transit use.”

Other factors that might help people feel more confident about using public transit again include access to data regarding how full services are and whether there are areas on trains that are less crowded, Moovit says. In Singapore, for example, almost 43% want to know how crowded a public transportation vehicle is before they get on board.

The survey also found an appetite for mobile payments. In the US, for example, 46% of travellers expressed an interest.

Work is already under way around the world to find different ways of reassuring passengers and containing the spread of the virus. In South Korea, smart bus stops check people’s temperatures, only allowing them on the bus if they register 37.5ºC or below.

Get on the bus

Access to safe and secure public transportation networks is of great significance to urban centres. They allow people to move around efficiently without recourse to private vehicles, helping to keep carbon emissions under control.

The US Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) outlines three key ways in which public transit networks can reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

• Providing a low-emissions alternative to driving.

• Facilitating compact land use, reducing the need to travel long distances.

• Minimizing the carbon footprint of transit operations and construction.

Car journeys make up around 47% of a typical two-car American family’s carbon footprint, the FTA says. As such it is the single largest source of domestic emissions. If one of those car-owning people switched to public transport for a daily commute of 16km each way, they could achieve the equivalent of an 8.1% reduction in the household’s annual carbon footprint.

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