The COVID-19 pandemic has struck public transport across Europe in an unprecedented way. Lower occupation levels and mandatory health inspections are now part of travelling with trains, trams and buses.

Yet, public transport remains an essential part of society. It is a sustainable, accessible and affordable mobility option. Regaining passengers’ trust is crucial and even though most operators have taken action to increase safety, the widespread idea of “high infection risk” is still hard to dissociate from public transport.

To understand the repercussions of this new reality on passengers’ behavior, our secretariat has been monitoring information about COVID-19 and public transport across Europe in conjunction with EPF research commissioned by Transport Focus and London TravelWatch. The two official independent passenger watchdogs in Britain have been tracking how passenger behaviour, attitudes and experiences are changing each week during the pandemic.

At first sight, public transport does seem like a potentially proliferating environment for this virus, as in closed and highly crowded spaces, it could easily spread. A study conducted on Chinese high-speed trains pointed towards a high transmission risk of COVID-19 among passengers. This risk appeared to depend greatly on co-travel time (the longer the travel together the bigger the risk) and seat location (the closer the passengers the bigger the risk). Nonetheless, it is important to point out that this study was conducted during the Lunar New Year celebrations and before the existence of any prevention measures (such as the obligation of wearing mouth masks). Many of the passengers involved in this study might have been family or friends traveling for the festivities and the researchers did not rule out the possible influence of longer contacts causing the infections.

More recently, epidemiological studies conducted in France , Austria and Japan showed very different results. Having analyzed the origins of clusters of COVID-19, the studies found no cluster connected to public transport. This surprising fact could indicate that the likelihood of infections in public transport is actually low. The explanation of this low number of infections can rely on several factors:

  • These studies were already conducted after the ruling of health safety measures thus commuters were paying close attention to wearing mouth masks, keeping social distance and disinfecting their hands regularly;
  • Contrary to other viruses, such as the flu virus, the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to be transmittable not only with deep coughing or with sneezing but also by talking, singing or other close communication interactions. In public transport this risk is reduced, as commonly people do not speak to other passengers unless they are friends or family;
  • Even though vehicles are closed-spaces, most public transport is ventilated or partially ventilated;
  • Passengers also do not tend to stay long on trains or buses. With the exception of long-distance travel, most daily journeys are short, with passengers entering and leaving the vehicles quite quickly. The short exposure to potentially infected people can reduce the risk of transmission.

These factors can justify why public transport can be considered a safer place than other enclosed spaces where there are fewer safety measures, such as gyms, bars or discotheques. Nevertheless, it is not possible to rule out the possibility of contracting COVID-19 in public transport. Pinpointing a cluster case to public transport is statistically complicated and it is possible that the results of the aforementioned epidemiological studies just reflect the difficulty of identifying three or more simultaneous cases in the same vehicle within hours.

COVID-19 is the fastest-studied pandemic in human history, but much is still unknown about the way the virus propagates and scientific knowledge around it evolves day by day. The same applies for public transport, where safety measures can change rapidly due to new scientific discoveries. What we do know now is that rigorous measures can make a difference: use of mouth masks, physical distancing, good ventilation, limited conversation and short exposure time minimize the risk of contamination in vehicles.

All such necessary measures to prevent infections are already in place in most countries and, across Europe, public transport operators are doing their best to avoid contaminations. Nevertheless, clear and coordinated communication on the measures taken as well as the adequate application of passenger rights (such as clear reimbursement procedures) are crucial to regain passengers’ confidence.

Sandra Lima, 17th August 2020