COVID-19 gives ASEAN nations a chance to improve public transportation

Photo: Singapore Buses / CC BY-SA

With a reduction in public transport ridership due to COVID-19, should ASEAN nations capitalise on the current situation and better their public transportation systems?

By Joelyn Chan

With fewer people commuting during the pandemic, it may be a good time for some governments in Southeast Asia to improve their cities’ public transportation systems. Post COVID-19, enhanced public transport systems will better serve nations’ needs.

Current public transportation utilization rate is lower than normal

In the face of COVID-19, public transportation use hit an all-time low, as people stayed home to lower their risk of contracting the virus. Mobility app Moovit has been tracking public transit data for a number of cities in Southeast Asia. In Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, trains and buses have resumed operation but public transport use has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

This may be because governments are encouraging people to work from home whenever possible and large gatherings are still discouraged. In countries such as Malaysia, public transport services limit the number of passengers at a platform or onboard trains. These practices have effectively lowered the number of commuters at a given time.

Public transport usage in Southeast Asian cities during COVID-19

Source: Moovit

Improvements of any scale will benefit commuters

ASEAN nations have varying levels of reliance on and investment in public transportation. To capitalise on the current lows in ridership, countries could start with simple facility maintenance.

Singapore offers some key lessons in this regard. The city had shortened the operating hours of its Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) trains in May. It recognised the lull in demand during the nation’s “circuit breaker” shutdown period and scheduled maintenance and renewal projects.

The city’s train systems were built in the 1980s and 1990s and need significant upkeep. By completing the repairs during this period of low ridership, the city is sparing its commuters from service disruption post-COVID-19.

Fare adjustments are unwise for now but Singapore could begin revamping its business model

Many public transport systems in the region are facing budget challenges due to the pandemic. But for now, cities should avoid fare increases as they won’t be well-received by average income earners who rely on public transportation. This demographic may be struggling due to unemployment or loss of income.

Before the pandemic, commuters in Singapore covered 50% of their rail system’s operating costs, with the balance coming from the state and non-fare revenue.

Source: Straits Times

The recent drop in ridership has meant that the proportion of costs covered by ticket sales is even lower. Like many transport systems in the region, Singapore’s rail operators need a solution.

According to Singapore Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan, additional costs incurred by public transport operators because of the COVID-19 outbreak are not “adequately covered” by current fares and will “eventually have to be borne by operators and taxpayers.” Public transport operators in Singapore were already losing money, with SMRT Trains reporting a net loss of S$155 million (US$110 million) in 2019.

Photo: Rsa / CC BY-SA

Passing the cost on to operators and taxpayers is better than putting it on commuters, but it is still not ideal. In the future, increases in fares could be justified by an improvement in transport operators’ performance—transport operators could offer better customer service or more frequent trains. As of now, a fare increase may also be frowned upon because Singaporeans have been frustrated by train service disruptions as recently as March 2020.

For now, the nation’s Public Transport Council (PTC) could make a deep dive into revamping operators’ financial and operating models. The current low ridership provides opportunities to trial different operating strategies and allows room for mistakes. For instance, the city-state could revisit its On-Demand Public Bus trial that concluded in May 2019. On a wider scale, Singapore could also learn from Hong Kong, which faces similar challenges. Hong Kong’s “rail plus property” operating model allows its rail company to remain profitable.

It is unclear when the pandemic will end, and public transport ridership may or may not return to pre-pandemic levels as working from home may become a new norm. But ASEAN nations will likely be better off if they seize the chance to start improvement works now.