Subways and buses are sitting empty around the world. It’s not clear whether riders will return.


Experts now fear the lockdowns will leave networks struggling with twin problems: how to recover from a huge revenue hole and persuade riders that it’s safe to come back to one of the cornerstones of city life.

“No way,” said Victoria Sanchez, a 59-year-old commuter in Madrid who normally took the bus daily for her job at Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now when work restarts, probably at the end of June, she will drive instead.

“In total, it’s over an hour to the office,” she said. “That’s a lot of time to be exposed.”

The World Bank is tracking the shift among people like Sanchez. “A pattern is emerging,” said Leonardo Canon Rubiano, an urban transport specialist at the World Bank.

“People are starting to jump back faster into their cars than public transit … everyone is reassessing how much they need to move, even beyond the virus,” he said.

The decline is everywhere

Cities emerging from lockdowns may provide an early indication of the extra costs associated with stepped-up sanitation and disinfecting measures and, in some cases, social distancing provisions.

And new realities of the outbreak — working from home and staying local — may prompt a fundamental rethinking of the daily mass transit commute and everything it means, from jamming into cars to wondering if the person next to you is sick.

Data from Moovit, an urban mobility app with 750 million users, shows that ridership on all varieties of mass transit — including buses, trains, subways, light-rail and bike shares — plunged more than 80 percent in major U.S. and European cities, including Madrid, Milan and San Francisco.

That drop is mirrored in parts of Asia.

After a partial lockdown came into effect in Singapore in early April, subway ridership there fell by around 84 percent, according to authorities. In Beijing, where 10 million people ride the subway daily during normal times, passenger levels were down by about 90 percent in mid-February at the height of the crisis in China. Slowly, though, Beijing’s riders are returning.

In Hong Kong, ridership on the Mass Transit Railway fell to a low in February not seen since the worst of the financial crisis in 2007: about half the rail’s normal passenger load.

Data analyzed by The Washington Post from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority shows the average daily ridership on the New York subway system was down 91.2 percent in April compared with a year earlier.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority saw its ridership decrease about 95 percent in April compared with the same period last year.

‘I’m nervous’

The Moscow Metro, among the world’s busiest, reported that traffic was down 82 percent compared with this time last year.

“I’m nervous that I have to take overcrowded buses every day,” said Alexander Ivanov, 29, who still does a two-hour commute each way to his job at Russia’s state broadcaster.

Ivanov said that most of the passengers on his commute do not wear masks, and that while Metro sets aside seats to create physical distance, the signs are often ignored. Moscow authorities Thursday announced that anyone not wearing a face mask on public transportation could be subject to a fine equivalent to $55.

In many cities, authorities have cut the frequency of buses and subways, leaving those that are still running more crowded than usual.

The Paris Metro is operating at only 4 percent capacity, or about 500,000 trips per day, down from 12 million trips per day previously, according to RATP, the company that oversees the system.

In Tokyo, 54-year-old businessman Fumihiro Mizuno said he was surprised to see “quite a few people” on the city’s trains on the rare occasion he takes them. He has even found himself unable to get a seat.

When things return to normal, Mizuno said he “would not want to be back” on the train at peak hours.

“I’ve changed, and I think I am not alone,” he said.

Transit workers worry

While the public has options, the people who operate mass transit do not.

In London, at least 35 transport staff members have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including 29 bus workers. Their deaths prompted authorities to enforce a change in mid-April, requiring commuters to board the iconic double-decker buses through the middle doors, in an effort to protect the drivers.

“We have to accept it, people will have this perception that you can get the virus in public transport,” said Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport and a 30-year veteran of the industry.

Experts say Seoul provides an early example of how a public transportation network can restart and rebuild commuter confidence.

In Seoul’s busy Myeong-dong station, a man in a blue train costume sprays passengers’ hands with sanitizer — part of Seoul Metro’s coronavirus-prevention campaign instructing citizens to wear masks on board and wash hands frequently.

Buses and subways in Seoul were running past midnight as per regular schedule, even in late February as the daily infection rate in the country moved toward its peak. No cases of covid-19 transmission from public transit usage have been reported in South Korea, according to the transport ministry.

Deep-cleaning robots

The ministry attributed the success to extensive disinfection measures and widespread mask-wearing among passengers. Subway cars and stations across Seoul are sanitized daily by cleaners in yellow vests labeled “COVID-19 Disinfection.”

South Korean health authorities trace pre-quarantine movements of coronavirus patients through in-person interviews as well as scrutiny of phone location data and credit card records. If a patient is found to have traveled via public transport, every passenger car and every station he or she stepped on are identified and subjected to disinfection.

In Hong Kong, robots were rolled out in March to help disinfect subway stations with a hydrogen peroxide spray. The MTR Corp., which operates the system, has plastered a new slogan on its posters — “Fighting the virus, traveling at ease” — featuring a cartoon subway car wearing a mask and carrying a mop.

On Chinese social media, commuters have started boasting of how they are strong enough to “touch nothing,” even on long metro journeys where they have to stand.

“We will have this transition period, and it could last one or two years before things go back to a new normal,” said Mezghani of the international public transport association. “And we really don’t know what this new normal will be.”

Kim reported from Seoul and Rolfe from Madrid. Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow, Karla Adam in London, Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo, Liu Yang in Beijing, James McAuley in Paris and John Harden in Washington contributed to this report.


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