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Can Mexico City’s transport system cope with social distancing?

By Peter Appleby | Mon, 05/25/2020 - 16:31

The impact of COVID-19 caused vehicle and public transport to fall by up to 80 percent in Mexico City, the city’s governor Claudia Sheinbaum reported this month. The capital’s metropolitan area, which has a population of 21.5 million, accounts for around 15 percent of the 7,394 total deaths the country has recorded from COVID-19 as of May 24.

Now, like the rest of the country, Mexico City is moving towards a so-called “new normal”, a post-pandemic life that will require social distancing and restrictions on movement to continue if deaths from the virus are to be stopped. The traffic light system that the federal government is using to signal the safety of a region as it moves towards reopening currently has Mexico City on “red”, meaning restrictions are at their strongest. But in a week, three major industries – construction, automotive and beer production – will resume while the “Municipalities of Hope” will also begin their new normal lives.

The return to work in the capital might not be far away. Public transport is an essential resource for millions of commuters in the city. But how will social distancing and hygiene measures work on a public transport system that typically supports 8.62 million journeys every day?

The experience of public transport networks in other regions indicates the size of Mexico City’s transport dilemma.

A study from the University of Sydney Business School says that despite an expected drop in the number of users on Sydney’s transport system after COVID-19, even a passenger volume of 25 percent the normal rate would make social distancing measures unfeasible. “If avoiding touching surfaces when you are on a train or a bus sounds difficult to you, then keeping the recommended distance of 1.5 meters from your fellow travelers is nearly impossible,” it says.

The Transport for London (TFL) organization responsible for management of the London Tube, the world’s oldest metro system, says that user figures would have to fall by 85 percent in order for users to keep social distancing requirements. So far, TFL’s only plan has been to advise commuters to keep distanced wherever possible and for those who can, to remain working from home.

New York’s Metropolitan Transport Association (MTA) which runs the city’s Metro system is “looking at everything” to keep people safe in the US´ city hardest hit by the pandemic. MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye told ABC NY that “the first thing we are looking at is staggered hours and staggered days of work.” He also said the metro system would make use of more technologies to track commuters.

Mexico City’s transport leaders are also reporting measures that their systems are taking.

Roberto Capuano, director general of the city’s Metrobus system, has tweeted out the ways in which the metrobus is attempting to protect the network’s users. These include drawing spaced lines on platforms and implementing protocols at the busiest stations.

The city’s Minister of Mobility has also been promoting travelling outside of peak hours and, where possible, using one of the city’s 6,800 Ecobicis for shorter journey. Similarly, there has been talk of attempting to implement a working week of four 10-hour days in an attempt to curb the spread.

But as of yet, there seems no clear and obvious plan that can help commuters avoid cramped experience of travelling common to most major transport systems. Should a second wave of cases happen in Mexico City once the first has been curbed, the public transport system may well be the way it arrives.

The data used in this article was sourced from:  
El Economista, University of Sydney, TFL, New York MTA
Photo by:   Flickr
Peter Appleby Peter Appleby Journalist and Industry Analyst