Restoring public transportThe government needs to strike a balance between safety and reopening the economy.
From 2005 to 2018, vehicle registration in Nepal increased at an annual growth rate of 14 percent as per the findings of a baseline fuel economy study. This growth clearly indicates how rapid urbanisation has fuelled motorisation across the country. In 2018, according to the Department of Transport Management, 96 percent of passenger vehicles registered were private vehicles. Public transport vehicles represent only 4 percent of the total registered vehicle fleet, but the travel mode share of public transport is almost equal to that of private vehicles.
While these figures clearly beg urgent restructuring and reform in public transportation to ensure equity, sustainability and governance, Nepal currently has a dangling challenge—restoring public transportation during Covid-19. A little over a month since the government relaxed lockdown measures, the administration is scrambling to implement new adjustments as more and more people emerge from the lockdown and return to work. With the virus still in circulation and the number of infections soaring, the question of how to restore public transportation puts both the government and the public on thin ice.
As the numbers show, a vast majority of people rely on public transportation, especially those from the lower and middle-income groups who are already reeling under financial stress due to the lockdown. On the other side of this dilemma are thousands of drivers, conductors and business owners who make up the public transportation ecosystem and have been hard hit since day one of the lockdown. The government’s decision hence to resume public transportation following pressure from business owners and transport workers is a double-edged sword, one that can have grave consequences given how recent research on the virus warns that there is risk of airborne transmission, and there’s mounting evidence on that front.
Notably, a paper published in the peer-review journal Practical Preventive Medicine in February highlighted that the virus could remain afloat even after the carrier had left the bus. The researchers comprising Chinese government epidemiologists who investigated a local outbreak case in Hunan Province during the peak New Year travel season found that the virus can linger in the air for at least 30 minutes and can travel up to 4.5 metres.
While authorities have asserted that there will be strict guidelines like carrying only 50 percent of the seating capacity, taking temperature reading of commuters and mandatory use of masks and gloves for transport staff, there is widespread concern if the government can actually implement the new rules given how new adjustments like physical distancing or the limit on public assembly in the wake of the relaxed lockdown largely remain unheeded by the public and businesses.
Meanwhile, transport entrepreneurs have rejected the government’s decision to resume public transportation and have put forth their own set of demands to be fulfilled before they start their operations. They’ve also announced that public transportation cannot operate at 50 percent capacity. In the midst of this extraordinary situation where physical distancing is the basic etiquette, authorities need to hold their breath and re-examine their own findings which report that the share of low occupancy vehicles like minibuses, microbuses and tempos account for 94 percent of the total public transport vehicles while the share of large buses stands at only 6 percent.It is public knowledge that transport businesses have suffered direly since the lockdown was imposed, and it would only be wise of the government to negotiate tax reliefs and restructure loans. But what’s more concerning here is what alarms public health experts amid the rising number of cases in the Kathmandu Valley. Public transportation is usually crowded and unhygienic, and is used by thousands of people on a daily basis who travel shoulder to shoulder. The government needs to strike a balance between safety and reopening the economy.
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