The Coronavirus pandemic which has hit the whole planet has, amongst other things, caused enormous damage to the financial, economic and social fabric of Italy. The idea that this event will change our daily life, how we live, the way we think of and manage work and social relations forever, or for at least a very long time, is now widespread. This is because many of the best practices and much of the virtuous behaviour we have learnt to follow will have to continue, even when COVID 19 has been contained or weakened, to prevent the renewed occurrence of such an event which, until a short time ago, was considered as improbable among natural catastrophes for modern society.
In this situation, the transport world also has to take account of the changes in mobility requirements in the post-COVID 19 scenario and is wondering how it can act to manage these changes, particularly in the short- and medium-term.
The Italian government started the so-called ‘Stage 2’, marked by programming the progressive removal of the curbs on movement and the re-opening of some businesses and services, on 4 May 2020. The question of the management of Local Public Transport (LPT) and railway services is especially delicate as, at the same time, they have to guarantee satisfaction of the demand for transport and ‘social distancing’ (a throng of not more than 1 person/m2 on board vehicles, at stops and in stations), clearly conflicting requirements.
Both LPT and railway transport are, by definition, collective or mass transport systems with high transport capacity, for both the number of seats offered by the vehicles used and the daily number of connections (timetabled or by frequency) as their main feature. In addition, it shouldn’t be ignored that, for many collective transport service operators, the often already small profit margins come from the maximisation of the fill capacity of their services.
This is the historical context of the reset of transport knowledge, both for demand for transport in terms of forecasts of volumes, behaviour and evolution over time, and what should be the new models for the provision of the services offered. The lines of action and tools to adopt to deal effectively with ‘Stage 2’, and all the transition period before becoming fully operational, must be defined (presumably different from the pre-COVID 19 mobility scenario) on these. The adoption of effective, structural measures is essential to prevent the transport system from reaching an impasse. How to act to minimise the loss of the demand there was for public transport pre-COVID 19 may appear not very clear and uncertain. What is certain is that if all, or most of, the demand for transport turned to private means, there would be chaos and blocked traffic in the towns and cities.
At the same time, this aim must be pursued with the approach that the strategies indicated mustn’t be viewed as temporary, preparatory for the management of just the post-COVID 19 restart. Instead, they must be structured with the requisites of flexibility and renewal so that a collective transport service able to respond to the changes in the mobility needs of the near future can be provided; it being understood that strategic, integrated planning for all transport networks based on the use of simulation models, massive exploitation of all the tools and technologies available and new demand forecasting methods through big data are necessary to ensure the effective reorganisation of the transport system. In this case, it is probable that, in the immediate term, the reorganisation of transport services will be transferred to individual operators for the management in the restart stage post COVID 19, at the limit, marked by the national indications issued by the government for the relevant sector.
Criteria and lines of action
Given the uncertain scenario, for both the demand for collective transport (volume, times and choice of method) and how the offer will be reorganised, the lines of action to adopt should be indicated, as far as possible, on the base of pre-set principles and criteria. They must be pre-set not only to indicate the action and then the tools and measures to apply to ensure regular, efficient operation of the public transport system but also to avoid the adoption of ‘makeshift’ solutions whose effectiveness is not proven and which may even turn into a waste of resources. For example, one of the possible solutions to ensure social distancing on public transport is only to allow vehicles to be 20-30% full with respect to the number of seats available, maintaining the frequency of service by using more vehicles.
A measure of this type poses various questions on the real effectiveness and sustainability for the following reasons:
- the demand for transport to satisfy is not known a priori, either in terms of potential volumes or because of the lack of information on “if and how” movement habits will change. In addition, a ‘diffidence’ factor, because of the user’s possible exposure to infection, must also be taken into account;
- for the above, the organisation of a pre-set offer system, based on the old performance indicators referring to the pre-COVID 19 period, may not be an effective measure suitably calibrated on the new mobility requirements;
- there is no guarantee that the transport operator has a sufficiently large fleet to offer a high capacity/frequency transport service with a low level of crowding;
- the operation of a transport offer that increases the use of vehicles and staff against capacity levels reduced to one third of the potential would increase the shortfall between operating costs and maintenance and earnings disproportionately, and so, unsustainably.
Therefore, to avoid evaluation errors, the set of reference criteria for the definition of the lines of action for the renewal of collective transport services could be:
- REVERSIBILITY – cancellation of the actions applied must be possible with contained costs if they prove to be ineffective and/or to adapt to the variations in behaviour of the demand over time, to ensure fast reaction times and limit any impasses, thus minimising false costs;
- FLEXIBILITY – the actions must adapt to the evolution over time of the features and needs of the demand for transport which appear starting from ‘Stage 2’ until full operation is achieved;
- ADAPTATION TO THE CONTEXT – the actions must adapt to the intrinsic features of the transport system in the sphere of application, obviously different between metropolitan areas, highly urbanised areas and small centres, differentiating between urban and suburban services.
- COMPLEMENTARITY – the actions must take account of the measures issued by the government for the economic-social system and which have, by reflection, an effect on the transport demand (e.g. planning re-openings and eliminating restrictions).
The adoptable lines of action for planning the collective transport offer can be divided into two macro-categories:
- tangible, which set out significant and, typically, long and costly modernisation operations to vehicles and infrastructures, as well as new creations;
- intangible, which set out organisational-type measures for a different way of organisation and provision of the transport service. The application of such actions may mean that some adaptation work has to be done to vehicles and/or infrastructures which is less relevant in terms of cost and fulfilment time compared to that set out for tangible actions.
Considering the strict limitations on processing and application times, actions in the first category should be avoided as they are marked by long design and development times as well as significant costs. Instead, organisational type lines of actions can be planned in much less time and with more contained costs, and they can be for both the demand and offer of transport.
To avoid dangerous crowds of people on both vehicles and at stops and stations in the so-called daily rush hours, the tangible type include consideration of policies aimed at reducing and distributing peaks in the flows of passengers overall a longer period of time. On this point, the possibility of staggering the opening times of schools, public and private offices and companies is being assessed and the reorganisation of work/production over six (or even seven) days a week. Measures of this type, with the knowledge that smart-working has, in effect, become a tried and tested method of work rather than a mere company welfare tool, could contribute to lightening the demand load to manage in the traditionally more critical periods for collective transport, remembering that its use is often far below its potential capacity outside those hours.
As far as the offer is concerned, taking account of the action on the demand, it is clear that the traditional model of ‘rigid’ operation based on a pre-set timetable or frequency may be ineffective at a time featuring a total lack of basic data on the demand for transport.
Starting from these considerations, the collective transport service can be revised abandoning the fixed-offer schemes and moving to an on-demand mode with services activated according to the booking requests by users. It could be a sort of bus-sharing where a certain number of users share a journey over a pre-set route, starting at the time desired (for each user with respect to the time the vehicle passes the selected stop) so that the number of users on board for each section is known in advance and, at first, limited respecting the rules on social distancing but with respect to other criteria of quality and reliability for the service in the future. Thus, the public transport offer could be reorganised following alternative supply models:
- Adaptive or flexible model, so all daily transport services are provided in relation to the actual demand for transport. Starting from a potential base timetable, set on the daily offer that can be supplied in relation to the available resources (vehicles, staff, etc.) and the expected performance (time taken, frequency, etc.), the user books the desired journey through a booking system (web, app, and apparatus in stations for self-service ticket purchase). The journey is ‘activated’ when a minimum fill coefficient is reached that makes the cost of the service sustainable by the operator. On one hand, this approach has the advantage of ensuring a transport offer calibrated on users’ real requirements and maximises the earnings from the operation of each journey. On the other, there is the limit of not being able to fulfil the share of “non-systematic or unplanned journeys” so the need to move occurs at a time incompatible with the minimum required to be able to book.
- Semi-adaptive or semi-rigid offer model, so the daily transport offer consists of a pre-loading of guaranteed services at set times to which a variable number of services activated by additional requests of the demand for transport are added. Starting from a potential base timetable, some services are guaranteed and cannot be booked (or can be booked for part of the available seats) while others are activated according to the volume of bookings received. The user can go to the stop or station freely for all guaranteed journeys. As a result of the strict limit on the level of crowding allowed on board, however, there is the risk with these journeys that part of the demand is unsatisfied, i.e. users have unacceptable waiting times. For the other journeys, as in the adaptive model, the user selects the desired journey through a booking system, and this is activated when the minimum fill coefficient is reached. On one hand, this approach has the advantage of offering a service able to fulfil both the systematic/programmed demand and the occasional or unplanned one. On the other, the transport service operator is exposed to the risk of operating journeys ‘at a loss’ if there is very little fill. The number of journeys pre-load can, in any case, be modulated over time in relation to the data and information inferred.
Both models forecast resort to a usage model of the service through automatic booking systems and authorisation of entrance to the station or getting onto the vehicle, which contributes to minimising social interaction between passengers and ensures the safety conditions on the platform and inside the vehicles are respected. At the same time, this supply models ensure greater protection for employees of the public transport service.
Nevertheless, the application of one of the two supply models is only feasible through that digital revolution that allows the maximum potential of many technologies already available to be exploited and thus continue the electronic integration between demand, network managers and service operators – apps for self-booking and e-ticketing, automatic ticket validation systems, automatic passengers on board counting systems or to authorise entrance to stations of ticket-holders and intelligent video surveillance systems to monitor passengers and avoid crowds in the areas of the stations. In practice, it’s the implementation of some of the technologies and applications available for long-distance air and rail travel some time for the collective transport sector, with the appropriate personalisation.
The commercial offer should be completed by structuring an opportune fares policy which, for example, sets out the application of different fares to stimulate the use of the public transport service at less requested times and applies a discount on the price of the ticket if the user is prepared to accept the penalty of leaving before or after the departure time required.
At the start of the reopening post-COVID 19, the need to define the lines of action for the reorganisation of collective transport services that must be effective, not only in ensuring adequate service and safety standards but also be feasible, i.e. sustainable by the public transport operators is clear. This sudden extraordinary condition can be exploited to put new strategies in place meaning not temporary and preparatory in the management of just the reopening post COVID 19 but structured so that they respond to the changes in mobility needs. On the other hand, before the COVID 19 pandemic, the collective transport system was showing clear signs of inadequacy in the face of evolving mobility, with losses of share to more flexible methods such as car-pooling or car-sharing. A renewal would have been necessary in any case to increase attraction to users.
The two models presented can be considered equally effective for the management of the service during the reopening, ensuring respect for the safety conditions for passengers and staff, and are completed with the set of operational measures (e.g. signs on seats that cannot be used, physical separation of passenger flows entering and leaving, positioning of alcohol-based disinfectant dispensers, etc.), aimed at ensuring safety conditions for passengers and staff. These are measures with a lower ‘strategic’ value as they were developed to resolve needs or critical situations strictly linked to the management of the emergency and so intended to change over time. On this, the main indications for the public transport sector are shown in the guidelines distributed by ASSTRA (Associazione Trasporti – Transport Association) and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, which should be referred to.