Most Nepalis rely on public transport to get around. Simply put, they don’t have the money to buy a personal mode of transport, and as such are compelled to take public transport.
Now, the atrocity that is the public transport system of Nepal is common knowledge: It is unsafe, unmanaged, and uncivilized. The syndicates have the system in their grip and there is little anyone can do about it.
Covid-19 has changed our attitude to public transport. But it is still an integral part of today’s urban world. People need to get around. Currently, all forms of public transport have halted due to the pandemic. But once some form of normalcy returns, public transport will resume. Further, the syndicates are going to put pressure on the authorities to recommence public transport as soon as possible. It will then bring forth a whole new level of risk of contagion.
Stuffing a vehicle above its capacity is common on Nepali roads, compromising the vehicles’ ability (braking, maneuvering, etc.), especially as most drivers insist on driving like they’re collecting coins on the roads to get a new high score. This has also been the culprit in hundreds, nay thousands, of fatal accidents.
In addition, the Covid-19 outbreak has underlined the problem of hygiene the public transport presents. Cramming people shoulder-to-shoulder (and that’s putting it gently) in a filthy vehicle has always been unhygienic; the coronavirus has only exacerbated the situation. But does that mean we can shut down public transport? Of course not. What it does entail is working out safe travel methods.
The governing bodies have made several attempts to curb these anomalies in public transport, but the efforts have always fallen flat. However, undertaking and enforcing safety measures has never been more important. Now, as ironic as it may sound, this godawful virus might just be the defining moment to transform the country’s public transport.
This pandemic has made people aware of the perils of contagious viruses. It has instilled a sense of fear, which hopefully results in precautions for one’s own health. Consequently, this fear might nudge people to adopt safer measures while traveling via public transport. As public transport is a necessity, it is the government’s job to make sweeping adjustments to ensure public safety, and this is the perfect opportunity to put in place stringent reforms.
There are several measures that can be, and need to be, implemented. First, a strong and managed system is the need of the hour. Crowding around a bus station (or the side of the road) to catch a bus and piling in till it’s so crammed that you can’t scratch your nose is not going to fly. The government needs to immediately invest in infrastructure to allow people to use public transport like civilized folks. The main problem is that there aren’t enough vehicles to meet the demand. At this moment, budget restrictions are certain to be a problem. However, in the long run, it is definitely something deserving attention.
According to the World Bank, governments should begin drafting recovery measures to ensure financial sustainability of transport companies, particularly as the pandemic pushes the global economy into a slowdown. And, the government should immediately kick-start this process. Hence it’s important to assess the capacity of public transport under different scenarios.
For now, what are the immediate measures people can take when public transport resumes? On an individual level, they can adopt safety measures when travelling. This needs to be strictly reinforced by authorities and vehicle operators. Here are a few things that can be done:
We can have bus ticket systems or, even better, e-tickets. The goal is to reduce points of contact. Rwanda has invested heavily in the digitization of public transport. Cashless bus fare payment system has helped public transport companies cut costs there.
Public transport should operate at 30-50 percent capacity, depending on demand. Similarly, there can be a timecard system to ease loading and unloading during rush hours.
Front-door boarding should be closed to avoid unwanted contact with the driver. In case a vehicle has only one boarding area, the driver area should be separated with screens or shields.
There should be social distancing markers inside vehicles and bus stops to ensure adequate spacing.
Proper ventilation in the vehicle should be ensured at all times and passengers encouraged to use windows and fans.
Staffs should be reminded of basic personal hygiene rules.
Designated stops need to be diligently used, both by the vehicles as well as the passengers. This means everyone will have to wait patiently and avoid crowding.
All passengers should be wearing face masks/covers while getting on the bus and during the entire travel.
Only people with confirmed tickets should be allowed in the vehicles.
All passengers should be given hand sanitizers at entry and exit.
During boarding and travel, passengers should practice social distancing. They wait for the next service if the vehicle is full.
All vehicles need to be subject to regular and frequent cleaning and disinfection, diligently enforced by the authorities and vehicle operators. Ensure regular cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched surfaces such as handles and rails.
Is your journey necessary? If you’re unwell or show signs of sickness, it is a good idea to avoid public vehicles.
Taxis (and other vehicles) can also think about introducing glass screens to separate drivers and passengers.
The authorities should put infographics in waiting areas and bus stops, explaining the importance of physical distancing, and hygiene.
All said and done, it is important to reiterate the perils of restarting public transport too soon and without right precautions. It is, nonetheless, a vital component of urban areas. At the moment, all we can do is hope that the authorities take steps to ensure the safety of the civilians and to keep our cities running.