COVID-19 SPECIAL

Mass transit must evolve in post-pandemic world

Declining ridership and decentralised lifestyle habits mean bus, rail systems have to change

When I was doing my Master of Science in Urban Transport Management at the Singapore University of Social Sciences some 10 years ago, my initial proposal for a thesis was on how mass transit might affect the transmission of diseases, as this was an unexplored area. My professor thought it was a great topic, but warned that I might have difficulty getting data. So I switched to something else.

I never imagined the world we are in now. Who did? A non-cellular pathogen that causes the infectious disease Covid-19 has turned our way of life upside down in a matter of months, and things may never revert to what they were.

Last month, I wrote about how we should seize this time of adversity to rethink and possibly transform our land transport system. But a lot of walls will have to come down before a new structure can be in place.

The biggest challenge is an obvious one. Mass transit systems are designed, financed, built and operated based on high-volume assumptions. Their very viability hinges on the vast number of people they move in as short a time as possible.

In a post-pandemic world, this proposition may go out the window, and possibly, for good. How can the model evolve so that it remains safe, and yet still be relevant to state, operator and end-user?

FALLING RIDERSHIP, LOWER REVENUE

First off, how will the new world order affect cost?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the bus and rail systems here together catered to well over a billion trips per year. From 2010 to 2019, annual ridership went from two billion to 2.8 billion trips.

Assuming an average fare of $1.20 per trip, the volume adds up to $2.4 billion to $3.4 billion per year in revenue.

This revenue has traditionally been sufficient to keep the whole machinery running smoothly. Public transport operators are profitable, government subsidies are capped (mostly for infrastructure), commuters get value for money. On top of that, there is enough to go back into maintaining a relatively new fleet of buses, and renewing the rail network to ensure a high level of dependability.

As reported widely, this finely calibrated machinery broke down when the balance between operator profitability and asset replacement went out of kilter, exacerbated by a huge population influx.

The breakdowns were literal and repeated, as complaints about overcrowding on buses rose and the MRT system suffered frequent stoppages or delays, especially from 2010 to 2017. With an enormous injection of public funds - and plenty of grief - Singapore managed to right the public transport vessel once again.

Now, a tsunami in the form of the pandemic is threatening to topple it again. The deadly outbreak has decimated ridership by as much as 80 per cent. In dollar terms, that means wiping out $2.7 billion from last year's total fare revenue base.

Transport operators will not only have to continue to contend with lower patronage, but they will also have to carry on with reasonably high service frequency so as to maintain safe distancing measures.
Transport operators will not only have to continue to contend with lower patronage, but they will also have to carry on with reasonably high service frequency so as to maintain safe distancing measures. LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE PHOTO

Mass transit systems are designed, financed, built and operated based on high-volume assumptions. Their very viability hinges on the vast number of people they move in as short a time as possible.

In a post-pandemic world, this proposition may go out the window, and possibly, for good.

Clearly, this means disaster for the entire system. There is no way the system can continue to be viable if only 20 per cent of commuters are using it.

Things will improve as the country puts a lid on transmission rate, and stay-home measures are eased. But it is highly unlikely that demand will bounce back 100 per cent in the near term.

Operators will not only have to continue to contend with lower patronage, but they will also have to carry on with reasonably high service frequency so as to maintain safe distancing measures.

ADJUSTING FARE FORMULA

This double whammy will translate to higher cost. The maths is pretty straightforward. Assuming overall ridership volume gradually rises to half of what it used to be before the pandemic, fares will have to double to $2.40 per trip to make up the lost revenue. Or government subsidies will have to increase by $1.7 billion. Or both sides will have to shoulder the cost. None of the options is palatable.

Public transport operators can of course run on thinner or no profit to share the burden, but that will not be viable in the long run either.

Singapore University of Social Sciences transport economist Walter Theseira says the formula's network capacity factor "will balloon this year because of excess capacity". This could send fares skyrocketing because ridership would be far lower than what the network was designed for.

Hence for the immediate term, the existing fare formula has to be suspended to prevent fares from soaring. In the longer term, the pandemic presents an opportunity to overhaul the fare adjustment formula. There have been repeated calls to link service quality to price, so that may be worth exploring.

DIFFERENT TRAVEL PATTERNS

And what if the pandemic does not go away soon? Already, some countries are seeing transmission cases after lifting lockdown measures recently. A vaccine is a long way off. Even if one were to be ready tomorrow, it will take several years to vaccinate the world's population of 7.6 billion.

Hence a new public transport model will have to emerge - one which takes into account lighter loads, different travel patterns and new operating regimens.

Fares and tax subsidies will have to be adjusted to reflect this new reality. On the other hand, maintenance, repairs and asset renewal plans could be spaced out more.

Much of the wear and tear on our rail system, for instance, happens during peak hours, when the system is stretched to its limits.

With a lighter overall load, and hopefully with demand spread out more evenly throughout the day as people and businesses learn to operate in a safe-distanced world, this aspect of operating cost can come down.

But with reduced ridership lowering revenues, the financial sustainability of the transport operators is a real issue.

Nationalisation may be one way for the transition, as it removes operator profitability - often a sticking point - out of the equation. As it is, Singapore's land transport system is one step away from nationalisation, with the Government paying for bus contracts, and the state taking over ownership of all rail assets.

SMRT, which runs most of the rail systems, is now an unlisted, private company. Bus operators, a mix of listed (for example, SBS Transit) and non-listed (for example, Tower Transit) firms, bid to run bus services.

Beyond issues of capacity and demand, the evolution of how people commute has larger implications. Dr Theseira reckons "low travel volume would mean low utilisation of the Central Business District, and hence real estate values can't be sustained".

"That problem would far outstrip the public transit one, since the value of cities is based entirely on having a large number of people working in the same area at the same time," he adds.

Again, this presents a silver lining. Namely, an added impetus for Singapore's decentralisation plan. For decades, ambitions to reshape the city to allow people to work and play nearer to where they live have been hampered by fears that the plan would hollow out the CBD.

In a virtuous way, a more geographically dispersed city-state will lead to lighter and more evenly distributed commuter loads. Which in turn means lower maintenance expenses for transport operations.

In the far horizon, perhaps lighter rail systems may become more sustainable. Their lower capacity may be offset by better connectivity which will narrow first and last miles. There could be many of such lines linking residential, commercial and leisure nodes within a precinct, instead of massive heavy-load transit lines which operate at maximum loads for two hours in a day in each direction but are under-used the rest of the time.

In essence, even as the pandemic exerts immense economic and personal hardships, it encourages us to relook the way we live, and to find alternatives.

We should not be blind to the possibilities of such alternatives, even if we long to go back to how things were previously.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2020, with the headline 'Mass transit must evolve in post-pandemic world'. Print Edition | Subscribe