STA Nominee Cities Show Robust Transit Responses to COVID-19

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Across the globe, many cities swiftly responded to challenges that the COVID19 pandemic brought to transportation. They contended with public health-based restrictions, new community needs, and the threat of increased private car travel in response to social distancing guidelines. 

As part of the 2022 Sustainable Transport Awards, MOBILIZE asked nominated cities to detail how transport adapted to uncertainty, tragedy, and a “New Normal.” Common across nominees were public health measures, such as half-capacity and masking requirements, dogged sanitation efforts, and new contactless fee payment systems. Some, like Guadalajara, Mexico, did away with fees altogether, recognizing the economic toll of the pandemic and lockdowns.

Ultimately, many cities saw in the pandemic opportunities to implement new sustainable transport programs, and seized these opportunities. For example, COVID-caused budget crunches encouraged the City of Charlotte, United States to mandate that procurement consider the true cost to own (TCO) its vehicle fleet. As electric vehicles have a lower TCO compared to gas-powered vehicles, this mandate accelerated the city’s commitment to a 100% electric vehicle fleet by 2030.

Cities are carefully observing how the pandemic is changing the way residents work, interact, and live, so it can respond with more enjoyable, efficient, and sustainable transport.

Repurposing Public Transit

In India, cities repurposed the existing transportation infrastructure for public health use. The Mo Bus system in Bhubaneswar, India is one of several that put its vehicles to work even during lockdowns that halted regular service. Mo Bus used its fleet to transport COVID patients and deliver groceries to those in quarantine, and it converted bus stops to vegetable stands. In Hubballi Dharwad, India, public transport vehicles were converted to mobile clinics, including wash basins and examination tables used by a nurse and doctor on staff. These clinics rode through containment zones to treat sick patients. Surat, India used its fleet to transport migrant workers and medical personnel, and refitted vehicles as ambulances, sample-collecting units, and food distributors. 

Pop-up Bicycle lanes and Pedestrian Areas

Social distancing measures increased demand for bikeable and walkable spaces. In response, many cities created pop-up bikelanes. Bogota, Colombia created 84 km of emergency bike lanes over the course of the pandemic, and 28 km of lanes will remain permanent. Cities like Medellin, Colombia; Rosario, Argentina; and Bengaluru, India also deployed pop-up bike-lines and converted streets to pedestrian-only public spaces, supporting outdoor socialization and small businesses (for example, Church Street in Bengaluru). Over the course of the pandemic, cities saw bike ridership increase (by 400 percent in some main roads in Bogota), and plan to make permanent the many temporary pedestrian- and cycling-focused interventions. 

Using Big Data and Technological Innovation

Cities such as Harbin, China and Moscow, Russia used cameras in buses and stations to monitor passenger load in efforts to reduce capacities and enforce social distancing measures. Cities also used e-fare systems to contact-trace, alerting riders if they might have come into close contact with a passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19. The metropolitan government in Seoul, South Korea analyzed big data to track congestion within public transit, so passengers could decide which train cabin to board based on crowdedness inside. Cities like Vancouver, Canada studied traffic data to target sidewalks that needed widening, responding to pandemic-caused changes in travel patterns. As the pandemic shifted the needs of transit passengers and other travelers, cities deployed new technologies to accelerate and fine tune their responses. 

The STA-nominated cities have shown that quick and innovative responses in transport can help communities in times of crisis. They have demonstrated that action can be swift and decisive when political will demands it, and that many changes will have permanent positive effects as cities transition to a “New Normal.” The pandemic has pushed cities to be more creative, adaptive, and inclusive—to consider more residents and how transit infrastructure can better serve them. Both one-time innovations and systemic shifts in thinking will shape how cities move forward.

Learn more about this year’s STA nominees here

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