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Dorina Pojani: The COVID-19 pandemic will not ruin public transport

Dorina Pojani, Professor at the University of Queensland, Australia.

In this issue, the Center has an exclusive interview with Professor Dorina Pojani on public transport and COVID-19. Professor Dorina Pojani is currently with the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Queensland, Australia. The University of Queensland), lecturer. Her research interests focus on global built environment themes (urban design, urban transportation and urban housing). Her recent research includes Honor Cities: Feminist Perspectives on New Capitals.

In the winter of 2022, the Winter Olympics will be held in The Chinese capital, Beijing. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not fully contained, is placing enormous public health pressures on the city and the country. How to effectively ensure the prevention and control of the epidemic in Beijing during the Winter Olympics? How to manage and settle foreign athletes? Should Beijing's public transport take corresponding measures during the Winter Olympics? In response to these questions, the Center interviewed Professor Dorina Pojani for his views on the prevention and control of the epidemic on public transportation in Beijing during the Winter Olympics.

The COVID-19 pandemic will not ruin public transport

The 24th Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing. During a major event, especially during the COVID-19 period, it has a big potential to a large-scale infection, so what human factors do you think cause the infection and how to plan the daily travel of athletes and other participants so as to reduce the possibility of infection?

While mobility is vital to the well-functioning of cities and counties, I agree that travel can also act as a major spreader of disease. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted transport modes differently: individual modes (cars and micromobility) which limit contact with others are now preferred over collective modes (buses and trains). Here in Australia, post-lockdown cities are already reaching driving levels that exceed pre-pandemic levels.

I will focus here on public transport use, which is one of my areas of expertise. I am basing my answer to your question on a recent study on bus travel during the pandemic, which I prepared with a colleague in Vietnam, Dr Minh Hieu Nguyen. The study was entitled “Covid-19 need not spell the death of public transport: Learning from Hanoi's safety measures” and appeared in the Journal of Transport & Health. The study setting, Hanoi, bears some resemblance to Chinese cities in terms of size, appearance, and culture. Like Beijing, it is a national capital.

We found that, in contrast to other cities worldwide, the pandemic has not decimated bus ridership in Hanoi. Notably, the Vietnamese capital has mostly relied on the use of face masks and hand sanitizer during travel, instead of requiring physical distancing on buses. This study examined public bus passengers’ levels of compliance with Covid-19 safety measures, and the factors that affect compliance. We found that 100% of passengers wore face masks (which were mandated), albeit 11% did so incorrectly, while only 28% of passengers used the hand sanitizer provided by bus operators (which was recommended but not required). In addition, 38% of passengers carried their own bottles of hand sanitizer while travelling, despite a relatively low risk of contracting the virus. Women, older passengers, and urbanites were less likely to sanitise their hands. Frequent bus travellers behaved like the population at large with regard to protective measures against Covid-19.

Hanoi's overall measures - full use of face masks and partial use of hand sanitizer - were sufficient to contain three relatively minor Covid-19 waves while still maintaining regular bus operations most of the time. If other cities – including Beijing during the Winter Olympic Games - were able to reach these levels of compliance, most would be in much better position vis-à-vis public transport use during the pandemic (or an epidemic).

I reiterate that, for safety, a series of non-pharmaceutical measures must be widely adopted while on board and at stops, including: (1) adoption of physical distancing (2) wearing of face masks, and (3) sanitizing hands. Ideally, these measures should be used in combination rather than in isolation, but some have been more controversial than others. I would say that mandates work much better than awareness raising campaigns, although the latter have a role to play.

Even where certain safety measures are mandated, conductors (ticket collectors) and/or station operators need to be more vigilant and direct passengers to use masks correctly and apply hand sanitiser. They also need to assist the older adults, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and those carrying heavy luggage. Moreover, conductors (and operators in general) need to work on addressing any longstanding issues on public transport, if present (for example, pickpocketing, sexual harassment, or abuse of reserved seats on buses) so that passengers are not too preoccupied with those to forget sanitising their hands and fixing their masks.

In theory, Beijing could also establish ‘safe distance’ thresholds for its public transport system – following the example of Shenzhen in 2020. However, these rules would result in public transport operating at a lower capacity than normal thus increasing operating costs and undermining the service frequency. This may be undesirable during the Winter Olympic Games.

Interviewer: Li Yuxuan

Interview date: October 26, 2021

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