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lunes, 11 de mayo de 2020
Commuters on the London Underground on April 22. PHOTO: TOLGA AKMEN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
As coronavirus lockdowns ease, transport operators will struggle to get people moving again while keeping them apart
The Wall Street Journal
Cities around the world are butting up against an intractable problem as they emerge from their coronavirus lockdowns: It is almost impossible to make their mass transit systems comply with social distancing during the rush-hour crush.
Keeping passengers several feet apart in buses, on train platforms and on board subways could reduce ridership by as much as 80%, according to officials and public transport companies.
Some operators warn that stringent requirements to disinfect seats, stanchions, door panels and miles of handrails several times a day will also make it harder to get busy cities back up and running, hindering any economic recovery and disrupting everything from business meetings to school and university classes.
“It is a real headache,” said Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary-General of the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport, or UITP.
“We can cope if this goes on for three, maybe six months until we find a remedy against the virus,” he said. “If it lasts longer, we would need to think of radical solutions.”
Illustrating how the new cleaning regime might impair service, the New York City subway system stopped running 24-hours-a-day on Wednesday. It is now shut between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to allow for deep cleaning of trains and stations. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority that runs the network has said it wouldn’t be possible to keep passengers 6 feet from each other, and that it was awaiting guidance from health officials on what benchmark to aim for.
The potential disruptions are large enough that some cities, mostly in Asia, have decided against rigorously enforcing social distancing. Western countries may find that they, too, will have to rely primarily on keeping their transit systems as clean as possible if they are to get people moving around their cities again.
In Seoul, passengers crammed into trains Wednesday after returning to work from a public holiday. In Beijing, where quarantine measures were recently loosened, subway trains headed from the city center to the eastern suburb were tightly packed with passengers wearing face masks. Chinese transport authorities have said that a combination of thorough cleaning, face masks, temperature checks and proper ventilation was enough to ensure commuters’ safety in areas where infection rates have fallen.
But in European cities such as Rome, which have been deeply scarred by the pandemic, authorities have requested that transport companies enforce social distancing amid fear of a second wave of infections.
To ensure that passengers wouldn’t find themselves squeezed into subway cars or squashed up against each other when Italy’s lockdown was partially eased on May 4, Rome’s public transport company ATAC placed large stickers on seats that should be used to separate passengers and separated the entrances and exits of underground stations to better control the flow of foot traffic. The company also recalled hundreds of employees it had previously placed on a furlough program to make sure passengers follow requirements to wear face masks and prevent them from entering stations if trains are more than half full.
Barbara Marcotulli, a business consultant, said she felt safe using Rome’s subway this week after spending the past two months confined at home. “I was comfortable because there were just a few people and everybody was behaving in a very responsible way,” she said.
The flip side of the approach in Rome is that it will take a long time to return to normal life. Office workers, including civil servants, are requested to continue working from home for the foreseeable future. Companies that need their workers on-site have to adopt staggered working hours to reduce the number of passengers at peak times.
In London, authorities are still working on a plan to lift lockdown. Asked in Parliament on Wednesday about the challenges of restoring full capacity to the city’s mass transit system, Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded by saying, “This should be a new golden age for cycling.”
In Paris, where confinement measures are expected to be eased from Monday, the government and transport companies have clashed over who would be responsible if people cram too close together.
The city’s state-run transport operator, RATP, said social-distancing requirements meant it would be able to move only two million passengers a day, compared with half a million during the lockdown and 12 million before the outbreak. It warned of social unrest if passengers were turned away.
“It is our responsibility to inform you that [the measure] can’t be implemented and will lead to a suspension of operations,” RATP Chairwoman Catherine Guillouard and other head of transport companies said in an April 30 letter to French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe that was viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
An aide to Mr. Philippe said the government wouldn’t compromise with the safety of passengers, adding that social distancing “wasn’t an option.”
During an online parliamentary hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Guillouard said that RATP would do its best to follow social distancing, but also urged people to continue working from home and refrain from using public transport. “It hurts me to say this,” she said.
Mr. Mezghani in Brussels said the UITP association was urging European authorities to take a closer look at the experience of Asian cities, and soften rules on social distancing to avoid choking their networks. “A combination of disinfection, facial covering and spreading peak demand can deliver good results,” he said.
In Japan, home to some of the world’s most congested public transport networks and where the nationwide state of emergency could be lifted early next month, the debate is taking a different turn.
There, the government had sought to persuade companies to promote remote work long before the pandemic, but without much success. This time around, the practice may take hold, said Keisuke Nakahara, an economist with Asset Best Partners, a management consulting firm, because it could help improve workers’ safety as well as increase productivity.
Mr. Nakahara said commuters in Tokyo spend the equivalent of a month’s working time on their commute every year.
“It is such a waste of time,” he said. “While the coronavirus is terrible, it is a great opportunity for Japan to boost productivity through remote work.”
By David Gauthier-Villars, Giovanni Legorano and Miho Inada