New mobility and fear of contagion: public transport faces the main crisis in its history Spain

The pandemic is changing mobility habits in cities. People move less for many reasons, such as the introduction of teleworking and distance education, the loss of jobs or the occasional closure of major leisure places. Throughout the year it has been seen that, after the restrictions, urban mobility is on the rise. It does not return to normal levels, but with the new normality of May and also in September the cities have filled up again. What does not rise is public transport.

The means of transport in large Spanish cities are registering half as many passengers as last year, according to usage data in six major cities compiled by EL PAÍS. While traffic in cities (mostly made up of cars) has fallen by between 15% and 25%, according to the source consulted, the use of public transport (people traveling on these means) has fallen by 45% 50%. The fear of contagion on the metro, trains and buses seems to be one of the keys to this descent. The consequence, according to the operators and experts consulted, is the main public transport crisis in history.

“When the coronavirus arrived, public transport was demonized and people still think it is a highly contagious scenario, although science has shown that it is not: it is perceived that there is more risk in the metro than in a family reunion and it doesn’t have to be this way, ”says David Lois, professor of Social Psychology at the UNED and researcher on transport at the Madrid Polytechnic. An OCU survey published on Tuesday confirms that where Spaniards feel most insecure is in public transport (67%), even more so than in bars (50%), shopping centers (47%) or supermarkets (29% ). The negative perception has not changed since the summer.

At the beginning of the pandemic, without security measures, there was more risk, as in any other place where people crowded. But numerous scientific studies show that with the current measures – masks, disinfection, air filtration – the means of transport does not represent a risk in itself. In Japan, where they have a thorough case tracking system, no outbreaks linked to public transportation have been found. In Spain, a team from the Consell Superior d’Investigacions Científiques (CSIC) analyzed samples of the Valencia metro in June —collected in railings, lathes, vending machines, handles, ladders and air conditioning filters— and concluded that there were no there was coronavirus presence on the premises.

“There are people who used to go by metro or suburbs and now go by car,” says Samir Awad, a professor of transport planning at the European University. Confinements in large cities, with the cessation of some activities and others that have not, have influenced the use of the car with respect to transport: “If the logistics industries that have not stopped are located on the outskirts of the cities and do not have good accessibility in transport, their workers go by car and this activity continues. But leisure in the city center, which is usually done on public transport, has fallen. This affects car use unevenly, ”says José Carpio-Pinedo, an urban mobility consultant.

Passengers at Atocha Suburban Station, Tuesday. Victor Sainz

The drop in passengers is also clear on intercity bus and commuter train networks. They are usually the means of transport of reference for workers who travel long distances, to the city center from nearby municipalities or to the large industrial platforms on the outskirts. In June or July, when there were hardly any mobility restrictions, cities such as Madrid, Seville and Malaga registered less than half of travelers than in the same months of the previous year. In September and October, even less.

“This drop is being similar throughout Europe, while in Latin America it is falling even more,” says Dionisio González, of the International Public Transport Association (UITP), where 1,800 companies from a hundred countries share knowledge. The German Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) estimates a 41% drop in public media passengers compared to 2019, reports Enrique Müller. A study carried out in the summer in this country testifies that also there travelers are prioritizing the car or private means, which they consider safer.

This decrease in travelers is having fatal economic consequences. “Transport companies are bankrupt. We have huge losses “, sums up Álvaro Fernández Heredia, manager of the urban buses of Valladolid, who figures the hole in 4.8 million euros,” more than the previous 15 years “. Municipal bus companies expect millions in losses: 14 million in Valencia, 14 more in Malaga, 22 million in Zaragoza, 24.5 in Seville… “We are making an effort, but it is not infinite. We need the government to help finance part of the cost “, says Natalia Chueca, Councilor for Mobility in Zaragoza. “As long as the pandemic continues, the sector will continue to be severely affected,” said Antonio García Pastor, of Avanzabus, which manages city buses in 40 Spanish cities. In addition, all companies have invested in new safety measures: daily disinfection of all vehicles, partitions, protective equipment, improvement of ventilation systems…

Several people are waiting to get on a bus at Madrid's Plaza de Castilla station last Tuesday.
Several people are waiting to get on a bus at Madrid’s Plaza de Castilla station last Tuesday. Victor Sainz

“I have not known another crisis like this, because the effects of confinements, the recommendation not to travel, telework and unemployment are added. It is an explosive mix for public transport, a sector that employs 37,000 people in Spain “, sums up Jesús Herrero, Secretary General of the Association of Urban and Metropolitan Public Transport (ATUC), which brings together the majority of bus passengers and subway and suburbs. Herrero supports the data: “We will end the year with 55% of last year’s travelers. There has been a decrease in revenue from the sale of securities of about 1.2 billion euros, not including neighborhoods. Neighborhood sources refuse to give an amount, although the losses of Renfe (which also include AVE, medium distance and regional) will be about 400 million euros.

The Madrid Transport Consortium, which includes buses, metro and suburbs, had 1.6 billion passengers in 2019 and this year will not exceed 900. “People make fewer trips and, if they can, prefer to stay close to their neighborhood the people; walking mobility is at similar levels to the previous ones ”, says Luis Miguel Martínez, manager of the Consortium. And the crisis will last for years: “2021 will be a year of transition. We believe that we will not recover last year’s figures until 2023 “, he adds. For its part, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB) had 1,056 million validations last year and it expects to remain at 555.

The Ministry of Transport has transferred 800 million euros this year to alleviate this decline, although this amount has only reached the transport managed by the autonomous communities (in general, metros, trams and intercity buses). City bus companies, which generally depend on town halls, are still waiting for another promised bailout. Pedro Saura, Secretary of State for Transport, replies that the ministry is working on it: “This item was included in a decree on local finances that Congress rejected. In any case, we will put all the resources to address this year’s deficit. “

The other pandemic: pollution

“The private vehicle is absorbing a demand that was previously typical of public transport. Now we are afraid of this pandemic, but there is another one, that of air quality, which also causes deaths even if they are not so visible “, explains the expert José Carpio-Pinedo. Having worse air quality also has an impact on the expansion of the current pandemic. A recent Harvard University study suggests that living in an environment of higher air pollution (and in particular, higher presence of PM 2.5 particles) is directly related to higher mortality rates for covid-19. “For coronavirus, vaccination is coming now, but for contamination the vaccine is public transport, and we are dropping it without anyone caring,” agrees Álvaro Fernández Heredia.

The pollution layer of Barcelona, ​​last Tuesday.
The pollution layer of Barcelona, ​​last Tuesday. Alejandro García / EFE

“Letting public transport deteriorate will make cities more collapsed. There is explicit support for the automotive sector, in which 10 billion will be invested in three years, but not for transport, which is more important from a social point of view, ”says Professor David Lois. Saura, from the Ministry of Transport, points out that in the same period, 4.1 billion will be dedicated to mobility in cities, although not everything will be used for public transport.

How do we do?

So what do we do? All the experts and operators consulted agree on the need to launch a powerful institutional campaign to demonstrate that public transport is safe. “The messages that have been conveyed so far from the Governments have been confusing,” says Dionisio González, of the UITP. The ministry points out that it is working on this campaign, but will not launch it until the pandemic is overcome, because there are still mobility restrictions. “It must be explained very well that public transport is safe and also the only one that guarantees universal urban mobility. And we need to lead by example and use it, ”says Marta Serrano, manager of Valencia’s urban buses.

Another shared proposal is to strengthen it despite the crisis: more bus lanes to make the bus more efficient, more frequencies of metros and suburbs to avoid congestion, investments in new fleets, increase the supply of more saturated trips, create lines of transport shuttle bus to places with poor communication… This makes it more attractive to encourage travelers to return.

In addition, an emergency investment is needed for the municipalities – which are asking for up to 400 million – and, in the longer term, a public transport law – in which the ministry is already working – which better finances urban transport. “We are one of the few countries in Europe that does not have it,” says Dionisio González. If not done, the risk is to worsen the service or reduce the frequencies; for now, no operator anticipates it. Míriam Manrique, director of funding for the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, warns: “Changing people’s mobility habits takes decades and can be lost in a year. If people go to the car we will have a major air quality problem.


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