COVID-19: Why public transport is not a hot spot for COVID-19 contamination

Despite public perceptions of mass transit as a vector for COVID-19 transmission, several scientific studies have found that public transportation poses a relatively low risk of infection with the right precautions. Keolis has implemented a range of measures around the world to help protect the safety of its passengers.

Restoring passenger trust in public transportation

Low ridership rates have defined post-lockdown mobility. As the growth of remote working and flexible mobility reshape travel patterns, fears of public transportation as a hot spot for coronavirus contamination continue to mount among people who now opt for cars. These fears—albeit unfounded—persist despite the set of precautions and measures introduced by public transport authorities and operators like Keolis. According to a Keoscopie study, wariness of others during the pandemic has fuelled avoidance of public transport, particularly in France, where 70% of citizens do not trust strangers to observe safety measures. (1)

These concerns, which are more widespread in big cities, are not always rational : Although bars and restaurants pose a higher risk of infection, they are perceived as almost half as dangerous (47%) as the metro (72%), buses and trams (67 %) because patrons feel safer surrounded by people they know. While public transportation brings strangers into close proximity, only 1% of coronavirus clusters occurred in mass transit in France (Santé Publique), attesting to the effectiveness of precautionary measures.


(1) Online quantitative survey carried out in 3 separate instalments (June, July and October 2020) in partnership with the Harris Interactive Research Institute, with more than 4,200 respondents.

Quelling public transport fears through scientific evidence

Several epidemiological studies suggest that the risk of contracting COVID-19 on public transport is very low.

  • The risk of contracting Covid-19 while travelling by train is about 1 in 11,000 journeys without a mask (less than 0.01%) and 1 in 20,000 with a mask (0.005%) (Report published by the UK Transport Regulatory Authority’s Safety and Standards Board).
  • Based on data from 2334 patients and 72 093 close contacts who had co-travel times of 0–8 hours from December 2019 through March 2020 on China’s high-speed trains, a Chinese-British study found that the overall attack rate of COVID-19 was 0.32% and 0.075% among passengers who immediately used the seats previously occupied by infected patients.
  • According to a mathematical model conceived by a group of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, passengers have a 0% chance of getting infected after the first 70 minutes of a subway ride and the first 80 minutes of a bus ride, provided vehicles are properly ventilated and both talking and movement are kept to a minimum.
  • Maintenance staff—who work at a distance from passengers—were twice as exposed to COVID-19 (2.7%)  as on-board personnel (1.3%)
  • In November 12, 2020, mass transit represented 0.53% of clusters identified in French establishments (e.g., companies, universities, nurseries) according to Santé Publique France.
  • In Germany, public transport accounts for 0.2% of infections according to the Robert Koch Institute.

5 reasons why public transport is safe in the age of COVID-19

  • Face mask compliance is often higher on public transport than other locations: 95% of passengers don a mask. (Source: UTP)
  • The time spent near other passengers is brief.
  • Interaction between passengers is low : minimal talking, screaming, laughter.
  • Vehicles and trainsets are disinfected regularly, and enclosed spaces are often ventilated.
  • Transport services are maintained despite a decline in ridership (lockdown periods excluded).

How Keolis protects the safety of passengers

On all networks, no matter their size or host country, Keolis teams and their PTA partners have worked relentlessly to mitigate COVID-19 risks since the onset of the pandemic.

  • Hygiene and disinfection.
    In addition to regular cleaning routines, every inch of buses, trainsets and stations is disinfected daily, including handles and grab bars, call buttons, terminals, seats, windows. In Besançon, for example, buses undergo an extensive virucidal treatment supplemented with ozone decontamination on a daily basis.
  • Paperless tickets. Fifty French networks have harnessed top-end digital tools to roll out paperless ticketing systems. In July 2020, Lille’s ilévia network rolled out its paperless M-Ticket system to avoid interactions related to ticket sales and purchases from distributors. Keolis passengers in the Paris region can also receive their e-ticket via text message.
  • Hydroalcoholic gel.
    Many networks are equipped with hydroalcoholic gel dispensers, including the Bordeaux TBM network which installed an alert on its 500 dispensers to ensure that a sufficient amount of alcohol-based hand sanitiser is always available.
  • Information and awareness campaigns.
    Our networks have put in place a comprehensive set of guidelines such as floor markings, posters and safety announcements to help protect passengers. In Doha, Qatar, Keolis agents also monitor face mask compliance, reminding passengers to fully cover their nose and mouth while wearing face coverings.
  • Contact tracing:
    Metro passengers in Doha are required to use Qatar’s mandatory contact tracing app EHTERAZ as soon as they set foot in a station. In Shanghai, China, metro passengers are invited to scan a unique QR code available in each compartment to register their presence in the vehicle. If a passenger becomes a confirmed COVID-19 case, all other passengers on the same day are alerted by text message and invited to get tested free of charge. A survey has shown that over 80% of passengers on the Pujiang metro line scan the QR code each time they travel.
  • Service adjustments
    While most networks have adjusted their services to the decline in passenger numbers, they maintain an important bulk of departures to avoid crowding onboard, such as Caen’s Twisto network which has operated at 80% capacity since November 16, 2020.This comprehensive set of measures has helped rebuild passenger confidence in public transport. According to a UTP survey, travellers (all networks and operators combined) are reassured by face mask use (88%), hand sanitiser availability (85%) and regular disinfection (80%). (2020 Mobility Observatory - UTP)
With the right precautions and measures, especially face mask use, public transport poses a low risk of COVID-19 transmission
 
Frédéric Baverez, Keolis Group Executive Director France, UTP Vice-President