Mohamed Mezghani has more than 30 years of experience in the public transport sector.
In your opinion, what lessons can the mobility sector learn from the period we’ve just been through?
The first impact of this unprecedented crisis has been a dramatic reduction in travel. During lockdown, transport networks saw a drop of almost 90% in ridership. As streets around the world emptied, we came to realise how much of city space is taken up by cars – and how cities have been built to accommodate them. With the easing of lockdown, many people chose to travel by bicycle, forcing the authorities to temporarily expand cycle lanes. Pedestrians, meanwhile, took to walking along the streets to avoid squeezing past one another on crowded pavements. What’s more, in countries where lockdown has been completely lifted, new consumer behaviours and patterns have emerged. People are opting to continue working from home, staggered hours have been introduced in both the public and private sectors and home deliveries of groceries have increased as shoppers steer clear of supermarkets. All this has impacted day-to-day travel and changes in the modal split, with roads reworked to accommodate more cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. It will take time – at least two years, in my opinion – for us to establish a new balance.
The lifting of lockdown raised many challenges for public transport. What’s being done to reassure passengers worried about contracting coronavirus?
People are concerned and it’s only natural. But the risk of catching the virus is slightly lower in public transport than in other public places according to recent public health studies. All the same, we must address these perceptions and work to restore public confidence through enhanced cleaning and disinfection regimes.
In Seoul, for example, the metro is disinfected 14 times a day. But it’s not enough to perform these procedures; they must also be visible to the travelling public – even if it means carrying them out while people are onboard or during stops at stations. It’s important to step up communications about network cleanliness.
Promotional campaigns will likely be needed to make public transport a more attractive option. And we’ve got everything to gain from reminding people about the benefits of public transport by highlighting our key role in providing public services, which were maintained throughout the crisis, despite the risks.
Can you give us a recap of the benefits?
To start with, public transport is a safe way to travel. The risk of an accident is ten times lower than in a car. Public transport is also cheaper for users and better for the environment, as it consumes four times less energy per passenger carried. Surface public transport networks make more efficient use of street space. And with fares that cater for all budgets, public transport contributes to social inclusion.
How is physical distancing being enforced?
In most cases, public transport is synonymous with mass transportation, making it incompatible with physical distancing. This kind of measure can only be implemented on an exceptional basis. In parts of Asia, such as Hong Kong and Seoul, social distancing doesn’t exist. It’s never been imposed and 99% of passengers wear masks, even though this isn’t mandatory. Yet the same virus is involved. It seems that there’s less chance of transmission if people don’t talk to each other. Commuters in Japan and Singapore are therefore advised not to speak to one another during their journey. In neither of these countries, nor in France for that matter, have clusters arisen in public transport networks. So, operators can have confidence in the protective measures they’ve taken. We shouldn’t let the public health crisis turn into a crisis of confidence in public transport.
What are the UITP’s priorities?
First, the crisis has compelled us to be more responsive and inclusive and to aim for greater impact. By holding meetings remotely, we’ve been able to include more members than at our face-to-face gatherings, which are mostly attended by Europeans. A sharp and heightened sense of community has also become increasingly apparent. Before the pandemic, we’d set five priorities: reduce the carbon footprint of mobility, drive the digital transformation both in how transport companies operate and in customer relationship management, prepare the workforce of the future, develop new revenue streams and support cities in growing their public transport offer. These topics are just as crucial today. If anything, the crisis has illustrated how essential public transport jobs are to society and the economy, with bus drivers especially emerging as key workers. The pandemic has also revealed new issues concerning healthcare and crisis management. Singapore, for instance, was better equipped to contain the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to plans it had developed in the wake of the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Lockdown led to significant and immediate reductions in air pollution. How can we now step up the shift towards greener energy systems?
I think there’s a risk of focusing on getting through the public health crisis but overlooking environmental issues. The car industry is lobbying for impending green regulations to be deferred or watered down. This is unacceptable and dangerous. The World Health Organization (WHO) has clearly shown that the virus spreads faster in polluted air. This is another reason why we must push to raise awareness, hence the importance of reiterating the benefits of public transport as part of the move towards a climate-neutral economy.
What are the main challenges posed by the EU’s Green Deal for public transport authorities and operators?
The Green Deal must be central to all plans to rebuild the economy after Covid-19. In fact, it must be our compass as we navigate the long-term recovery. In 2018, buses, trams, metros and commuter and regional trains in Europe carried close to 60 billion passengers, allowing us to avoid more than 40 billion trips by car. Expanding the use of public transport is part of the solution to achieving the ambitions of the Green Deal. To cut pollution levels and improve the quality of life of European citizens, the Commission should implement policies to reallocate public space away from cars to public transport. The transport sector accounts for around one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s one of the main causes of air pollution in urban areas and, unlike the building and manufacturing industries, has not succeeded in cutting its emissions. In fact, transport emissions have continued to increase, mainly due to the use of private cars.
That’s why public transport authorities must develop a strategy to facilitate the modal shift. And this strategy will be pivotal to achieving the goals of the Green Deal, namely: developing multimodal mobility, accelerating the shift to more energy-efficient modes, embracing digital technology, and stepping up automation and electrification. In short, everything that contributes to more efficient transport networks! The energy and environmental aspects of urban transport systems are determined by this modal split. The challenge facing authorities is to strike the right balance between different modes of transport as part of a new mobility ecosystem. The cities with the fewest cars, such as Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Amsterdam, have achieved the best results. Around 20 years ago, the Austrian city Vienna set the target of splitting journeys evenly between public transport, private cars and cycling/walking. The result has been remarkable, with public transport currently accounting for 39% of the city’s modal split.