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Blue-collar employees are returning to work. But is their commute safe?

by Amber Milne | @hiyaimamber | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 May 2020 18:32 GMT

A seat with a sign that reads "To protect your life and the lives of others, do not use this seat" is seen inside a Transmilenio transport system bus, after the government allowed certain sectors to return to work, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bogota, Colombia May 11, 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

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As coronavirus restrictions lift in cities around the world, those for whom teleworking is not an option are being asked to rejoin the economy. But are adequate measures in place to ensure they travel safe?

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Another divide laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic: low-income workers from Bogota to London commuting on crammed trains and buses as countries this week eased coronavirus travel restrictions.

While wealthier workers with job security stay home and limit their exposure to the virus, lower-paid people for whom teleworking is not an option are among the first being asked to rejoin the economy.

Coronavirus: our latest stories

Cities are reopening but can their builders, cleaners, waiters, construction workers and hospitality workers return to their jobs without getting sick?

Does using public transport increase the chance of respiratory infection?

The interiors of trains, buses and stations are the perfect environment for a droplet-spread disease like COVID-19 to thrive. Masses of people congregate in these areas, increasing the risk of direct contact with an infected person.

A commonly-cited 2009 study based on the travel patterns of 72 people in London presenting for treatment of flu symptoms found those using public transport were up to six times more likely to pick up an acute respiratory infection than those who do not.

People wearing protective face masks ride the metro in a rush hour in Paris as France softens its strict lockdown rules during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, May 11, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Do low-income workers primarily use public transport?

It varies. In many cities people pay a premium to live near public transport and lower-income workers are priced out and live in suburbs that are poorly serviced by trains and buses.

In Britain, public transport is the most important mode of travel for low-income households, 40% of whom do not have access to a car, according to 2019 government statistics.

While 13% of U.S. households have incomes of less than $15,000, they make up over a fifth of those who use public transport according to the latest U.S census bureau data.


What's being done to protect people on public transport?

The European Union this week advised workers to observe social distancing by staying two metres apart, buying tickets online and wearing face masks where possible.

Some European states like France have boosted public funding for bikes and cycle paths to take the strain off public transport.

Britain is planning to relax guidelines on using electronic scooters in urban areas.

Employers in some countries are being asked to offer flexible or staggered work times to staff in order to help people avoid rush hour traffic.

Egypt, Tunisia, India and other African and Asian states have imposed curfews to stem the flow of infection among those who need to travel.

People wearing protective masks make their way during rush hour on the first working day after the Golden Week holiday amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Shinagawa station in Tokyo, Japan, May 7,2020.REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Will the measures work?

Governments are advising people to avoid public transport by driving, cycling or walking but many low-income workers rely solely on trains and buses to commute.

This is particularly common in densely-packed cities where parking and petrol is expensive and high rents make living outside the centre common and walking or cycling to work difficult.

Often measures are not only hard to follow but difficult to enforce. In some places they have created crowds like in Cairo where a transport curfew saw mass congestion in the hours before trains closed.


Which cities have the most crowded transport systems?

Asia is home to seven of the top 10 most crowded metro systems according to the latest available data from Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP), a public transport organisation. Tokyo tops the list with 3,463 million annual riders.

Densely populated cities, especially in Asia, that are skyscraper friendly and mass transit-dependent have already encountered difficulties in reopening.

In cities like New York some companies are looking to move their offices to the suburbs to tackle cramped conditions in the populous centre as curbs are eased.

Commuters, some wearing masks are seen on a London Underground tube, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), London, Britain, May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

What more could be done?

As well as offering more personal protective equipment and increased transport services, experts have also urged greater use of technology to safeguard workers, although controversial among privacy experts.

Paris metro is trialling facial recognition technology to check if commuters are wearing masks, and Beijing's subway has an online reservation system and QR code check-ins to trace infection and regulate the amount of travellers.

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