October 28, 2020

Public transport prepares for lack of control in order to avoid a second wave of infections

Spain is advancing towards the de-escalation phase for unconfinement. The sanitary pressure for the coronavirus pandemic begins to subside and the Government is already working on the following objective: the gradual return to normality. It is expected to start from the second half of May and the first great challenge it poses is mobility, especially in large urban centers that depend largely on public transport. Millions of people will have to move again every day, with the added problem of the epidemic, which will impose security measures. At least, until the desired vaccine arrives, which experts don’t expect until 2021.

From the outset, the de-escalation will be done “progressively”, warn from the Government, to avoid, among other things, the crowds that lead to a second wave of infections. But travel will return before this disease is definitively overcome, so restrictions on public transport will continue for a while.

The limitation of mobility first, followed by the closure of school activity and the subsequent decree of the state of alarm, sank the number of travelers between 85% and 93% on all public transport in the country. With the return of non-essential activities since April 13, demand has increased, but all continue to operate at maximum 50% of capacity. The de-escalation that will be accompanied by the application of the social distance of between one and two meters can fatally injure public services that in many cases were already in the red.

In Madrid, the autonomy most affected, the Department of Transport, led by Ángel Garrido, has calculated that the number of seats available in the Metro, trains and bus will be reduced to 30% of their normal capacity in order to maintain the measures of security imposed by the Ministry of Health. They will only be able to assume 3 out of 10 travelers, Garrido calculates, with respect to the figures from before the pandemic. With the current flows of travelers, if nothing else changes, it will go from 5.5 million daily trips on average in a business day to “around 1.5 million”, according to the explanations offered by the Ministry of Transport of Madrid to eldiario.es. Neither the Madrid government nor the central executive can explain yet how the capacity will be controlled in stations to avoid crowds.

For its part, the Municipal Transport Company of Valencia calculates that with a social distancing like the one proposed, its buses could lose between 19 million and 53 million passengers a year.

How then to avoid the collapse of public transport? The solution is to move more by car?

Social distance measures in the Metro

A user of Metro de Madrid.

The Ministry of Transport is already working with the autonomous communities and municipalities with large population centers on this challenge. Although the general secretary of Transport, María José Rallo, assured that the use of the car “was a good thing at the moment” to avoid public transport, in conversation with eldiario.es defends that the Government’s strategy is not to encourage its use: “The pandemic cannot serve to divert people from public to private transport, we cannot go back in that regard and the government has a firm commitment to it,” says Rallo.

The Government and technicians recall that an increase in pollution means worse prognoses for those who suffer from the disease. Two recent studies link areas with high pollution to higher mortality rates in the Covid-19 crisis. “Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide may be one of the most important factors contributing to the mortality” of the disease, according to a study by Martin-Luther King University in Halle (Germany) published on Monday. In addition, an analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health (USA) shows that “a small increase in prolonged exposure to PM 2.5 microparticles leads to a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19 in the country” .

For this reason, experts advise against promoting the car and criticize Rallo’s words and also some statements by Garrido in which he defended that the use of public transport “should be limited to essential and strictly necessary mobility, mainly for work or necessity reasons medical. “

“The messages released about the convenience of using the car are now tremendously negative: firstly because it establishes a concept of dangerousness in public transport and secondly because when the distance conditions relax, the return to use will be complicated” , warns Samuel Romero, Civil Engineer, mobility expert and former CEO of Madrid Calle 30 during the past legislature of Ahora Madrid.

Adrián Fernández Carrasco, Head of Mobility at Greenpeace, adds that the car is “so inefficient in the city” that even in a future where mobility as a whole decreases, “it would suffice for 10% of bus passengers to change to the car to collapse the streets. “

Pollution is therefore not the only reason to avoid the car. An increase in the use of the private vehicle is linked to an increase in traffic jams and the collapse of the cities, the technicians consulted warn and acknowledge from the institutions. “In the last decades we have sacrificed public space to put it at the service of the car and we have already exhausted all that there was and a little more, reducing the streets to giant parking lots and relegating people to residual spaces where today it is impossible keep the safety distance “, warns Marta Serrano, mobility consultant and founder of Mujeres en Movimiento.

Promotion of telework and staggered schedules

To avoid this regression to the use of the private vehicle, the General Secretary for Transport explains that the Ministry is already working with the communities and the largest cities – on which many of the powers on transport fall – in “a catalog of different actions “which afterwards” each territory will adapt “. This catalog for mass transportation means (metro and suburban) will cover three main measures: expanding the offer and frequencies of public transportation; the promotion of telework and flexible hours, and the mandatory use of masks.

“It is essential to work on frequencies and demand management,” explains the secretary general of the Ministry of Transport. “We will have to expand the trains even more during the hours of concentration but also work so that there is less demand and that those rush hours instead of concentrating on one hour are dispersed in four, for example,” explains Rallo. All this will have to be accompanied by surveillance and control by public operators.

As for teleworking, technicians warn that it is important but we should not overstate it. “If one analyzes the distribution of occupations likely to be carried out by telework, this number does not reach 15% of the jobs and of these not all of them can be done remotely, so telework will not have an incidence greater than 8% of trips They are important, but it is not a structural amount, “explains Álvaro Fernández Heredia, university professor of transportation planning and manager of AUVASA, the municipal bus company of Valladolid.

Experts see more feasible the option of staggering the times of entry and exit to jobs, which would alleviate the hours in which most users of public transport are concentrated. “The staggered schedule, the flexibility of working hours, which would also act as a policy of work-life balance, the reduction of working hours would have an impact on improving the efficiency of public transport,” said Samuel Romero. However, they also warn that the economic model also has certain limitations.

Public transport is reduced to 50%, except Metro, Cercanías and buses

Public transport is reduced to 50%, except Metro, Cercanías and buses


In Barcelona, ​​teleworking is one of the main lines of action. Nel·la Saborit, mobility and technical specialist in the Barcelona Metropolitan Strategic Plan (PEMB) office, places it as one of the keys to mobility to avoid the collapse of the metro and bus during rush hour. “If you do a shift teleworking system, which is the way it should be, and you insert the entrances and exits of the work centers in a more staggered way, perhaps with shifts every half hour, the peak of transport demand will not be the same and it could be managed “, he maintains.

The General Secretary for Transport of the Ministry, however, does not specify how this measure could be implemented. “We are still in a study phase, we would have to see if we do it through social dialogue or with a specific regulation,” he explains, “in any case that transcends the powers of this Ministry.”

What is clear is that public transport, whose companies already accumulate millionaire debts, will suffer during the crisis. Regional administrations are already demanding compensation for operators from the central government through an extraordinary contribution from the annual state subsidy in the short term.

“In the medium term, a Compensation Fund should be created with contributions from all administrations to guarantee a high service offer that allows occupations to be kept low while regulating staggered entry into work centers to eliminate points in the system. Finally, the long-awaited public transport financing law, being Spain the only country that does not have one, becomes a health emergency so that mobility in cities remains viable, “considers the manager of the Valladolid buses.

The flexibility offered by the bus

Although the Metro and commuter trains have greater capacity and are faster, the bus is the most flexible transport system that we have today and the one that can best adapt to a demand that can change. The Government of the Community of Madrid is already working to promote its use and the solution passes, they assure from the Ministry, to promote shuttle buses and increase their frequency in the city. “It is easier to put more buses on the road quickly because they buy them and arrive in a short period of time, but not the trains that take months,” they defend from the department led by Ángel Garrido.

The mobility consultant Marta Serrano considers that “we have the technology to be able to make the response of a bus network more flexible and we should be able to apply it quickly to serve the population without saturating services.” It is also important, he warns, “to increase the speed of the service, since in this way the offer of places to the public increases.” For this, the technicians consider that it is necessary to put more lanes for buses in cities: “It is as easy as painting some road markings on the ground and building a continuous and solid network of bus lanes in the city,” says Serrano.



Valladolid City Council

To alleviate the deficiencies in the Cercanías, the Ministry is also working “to reinforce intercity services with shuttles,” says Rallo. “Although you have to see where it is easier to implement because not all the territories have the same cases,” he adds. Rallo recognizes that in any case, mass public transport such as the Metro or the suburbs will suffer and lose efficiency.

“Operators must be able to act in real time in the face of demand and concentrations, with booster buses that guarantee that the maximum capacity is not exceeded and that no one remains at the stop. Know that when a bus has reached its capacity maximum you will not be able to go up to it, but that in less than five minutes another vacuum will arrive “, considers Álvaro Fernández Heredia of the public bus company of Valladolid and previous manager of the EMT in Madrid.

The bicycle: the most advisable vehicle

Another measure that is being put on the table is to give prominence to bicycle journeys, the “safest” transport vehicle for getting around, according to the Minister of Health, Salvador Illa, in one of his appearances. The government then opened up to promoting the bike as a safe means of transport. Cycling experts and associations ask to take advantage of the circumstances to change the mobility model, something that cities such as Berlin, Mexico or Bogotá have already begun to do, which are implementing temporary bike lanes in the face of the pandemic.

Our neighbor, France, is one of the main countries promoting measures in this direction. The Paris City Council wants to promote the bicycle as the main means of transport when the confinement ends. In Spain, the Ecological Transition Minister, Teresa Ribera, joined this proposal after learning about the Parisian initiative and asked her Climate and Air Quality teams to study it together with local and regional governments. “I think it’s a great idea and a great opportunity in the context of different mobility,” he said in a tweet.

They demand that the bicycle be promoted as a safe transport against contagions

They demand that the bicycle be promoted as a safe transport against contagions


At the international level, the cities that have opted for bicycles during this health emergency (Berlin, Bogotá, Mexico City, Budapest, Glasgow or Wuhan itself) have chosen to offer free trips on the municipal bicycle network or increase the space of reserved circulation for this means of transport. From ConBici regret that neither of these two models has been launched in Spain. According to the data handled by this platform, 75% of the municipalities closed the public bicycle service. In Madrid it was reopened this week and the response has been modest: the first day only 581 uses, representing a decrease in demand of 94.5% compared to a normal day.

Little detail has been given of this impulse, although there are already cities that have advanced along this line. Barcelona presented this Saturday a new mobility plan to prevent a foreseeable drop in the use of public transport from having an impact on increased road traffic. For this, it announced the transformation of several kilometers of car lanes that will be converted for pedestrians or for the bike. The objective is to avoid that a foreseeable reduction in the capacity of public transport, which today accounts for 36% of journeys in the city, supposes an increase in cars and motorcycles, which for years have been installed in 25% of journeys, Pau Rodríguez reports.

In total, the Barcelona City Council plans to open about 12 kilometers for pedestrians and 21 for bicycles. Among the most outstanding actions are removing the cars from one of the sides of Diagonal –between Francesc Macià and Paseo de Gracia– and Gran Via –between Plaza España and Tetuán–. Car lanes will also be eliminated until only one is left on streets such as Girona, Rocafort or Consell de Cent, although in these cases these are already planned projects of mandate.

As for the bike, the opening of lanes in Barcelona is studied to be on the road, which will mean eliminating a car lane or sharing it with the bus. Streets such as Sants or Valencia and pending sections of Gran Via and Meridiana are included in the plan. The consistory plan, which will involve an investment of 4.3 million euros, also provides for 17 bus lane segregation actions – that is, its protection to prevent invasions by cars and motorcycles – and new sections on a dozen streets.

For the civil engineer Nel·la Saborit (technician from the cabinet of the Strategic Metropolitan Plan of Barcelona), in addition to gaining space for pedestrians and bicycles in the city, the key will be to do it in the connections with the surrounding municipalities, where historically there are more deficits of these brokers.

During the early 2000s, the municipalities carried out, with the support of state entities such as the Institute for the Diversification and Saving of Energy (IDAE), a huge amount of planning work in the form of Urban Mobility plans and Cycling Plans. “Then came the economic crisis and the execution of cycling networks was uneven,” explains Adrián Fernández of Greenpaace. “Today cities like Barcelona, ​​Seville or Valencia already have dense and meshed networks, but where there are no bike lanes, the City Councils know which axes are the priority. That is where they have to start.” incide. Madrid’s last plan dates from 2014, which includes a study of how the bicycle network could be expanded and also that of the bus lanes.

Proposed cycling network of the Madrid City Council in its Urban Mobility Plan (2014).

Proposed cycling network of the Madrid City Council in its Urban Mobility Plan (2014).

For the civil engineer Samuel Romero, an “ideal” scenario has been created for tactical urban planning. “Modify the use of streets with elements that allow changes at low cost and transform spaces in cities dominated by cars to environments for pedestrians and bicycles,” he suggests.

Urban planning in cities will undoubtedly change to adapt to the new reality of the pandemic. It is also necessary to offer more space to the pedestrian, who will also have to maintain safe distances along the street. “The journeys on foot will be one of the great recommendations”, they assure from the Ministry of Transport of Madrid something in which they agree in the Ministry of Transport. The car, again, could lose space (parking spaces and driveways) to give it to new needs.

Masks and individual responsibility

The last leg of the Government’s plan is the mitigating measures that will make it mandatory to use a mask in public transport and personal hygiene with gels that will be made available to users, warns Rallo. The Government Transport Secretary also appeals to “individual responsibility“for the new phase of de-escalation:” We are all wishing to return to normality and that this does not suppose a new wave of infections, for which the responsibility of each one will be essential; that of everyone, also that of companies. “


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