Who's most affected on public transport in the time of coronavirus?

How would a public transport shutdown affect you?

Pandemic peak hour at Flinders Street Station, Melbourne
Pandemic peak hour at Flinders Street Station, Melbourne. Image: Leon Della Bosca

Jennifer Kent, University of Sydney; Alexa Delbosc, Monash University, and Laura McCarthy, Monash University

The coronavirus pandemic is already affecting Australians’ daily travel, with suspension of public transport services a possibility as the number of COVID-19 cases grows. A common goal underpinning containment strategies in pandemic-like conditions is that the impacts should be borne as equitably as possible across the community. So would a public transport shutdown in Australian cities hit lower-income households harder than their higher-income counterparts?

In many countries this would certainly be the case. In these countries, public transport is largely the domain of the lower classes while wealthier households enjoy the comfort and convenience of their cars.

The data on Australians’ use of public transport and the distribution of services across our cities tell a more complex story. And not all users are equally at risk, because of how the virus spreads and the structure of public transport networks.


Read more: To limit coronavirus risks on public transport, here's what we can learn from efforts overseas


Why the worry about public transport?
The interiors of trains and buses, and stations and stops along the network, 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.

About 1000 passengers can crowd into a single train carriage. This greatly increases the virus’s potential spread through droplets if an infected person coughs or sneezes.

And the handles and seats inside trains and buses, and other surfaces such as escalator handrails at stations, are prime surfaces to host infectious nose and throat discharges. According to new research, this virus can live on surfaces for hours to days.

Handrails on escalators and stairs at stations used by tens of thousands of people a day are prime surfaces for harbouring virus particles unless regularly and thoroughly disinfected. Holli/Shutterstock

But the actual evidence is weak

Although public transport shutdowns are common in most contagious virus response plans, evidence of a relationship between public transport use and respiratory infection is actually relatively weak.

The most commonly cited study is based on the travel patterns of 72 people in London presenting for treatment of flu symptoms in 2008-09. It found those using public transport were up to six times more likely to pick up an acute respiratory infection than those who don’t.

This study also found, however, that regular public transport use was associated with less likelihood of contracting an illness. This was potentially because regular users develop protective antibodies to common respiratory viruses if repeatedly exposed. Unfortunately, this safeguard does not apply to a novel virus such as the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Those most at risk in this study were commuters who used busy stations, basically because they come into contact with more shared surfaces and people. In Sydney, for example, Central, Town Hall, Wynyard and Parramatta stations are potential hotspots. In Melbourne, Southern Cross, Flinders Street, Melbourne Central and Parliament stations head the list.


Read more: VIDEO: your coronavirus and COVID-19 questions answered by experts


Who would a shutdown most affect?
A wider cross-section of the Australian population owns and uses cars than in many other countries. Cars are not the domain of the wealthy. Rather, they are a necessary expense to navigate life in our low-density, poorly serviced cities. Car use dominates the outer suburbs where housing is more affordable.

Australians pay a premium to live near quality services including public transport. Lower-income groups are priced out and live in suburbs that are more poorly serviced by public transport.

In Melbourne, for example, 61 per cent of the most socially and economically advantaged population live within five minutes’ walk of quality public transport services, compared with just 41% of the least advantaged. If you are one of the richest 20 per cent, you are more likely to be able to walk to good public transport than anyone else in Australia.

Particularly in our larger cities, higher-income people are more likely to use public transport to get to work, as the table below shows. In Sydney, for example, 33% of high-income earners commute by public transport, compared with just 25 per cent of those on lower incomes.

The proportion of people travelling to work by public transport by personal weekly income. ABS Census 2016 data, Author provided

How might people handle a shutdown?
The data seem to suggest the impacts of a public transport shutdown will be felt more keenly in the top end of town than in low-income suburbs. But those numbers say nothing about what alternatives people have.

High-income households are far more likely to own more than one car. They are also better placed to absorb the costs of driving to work, such as parking, petrol and tolls. They can drive if public transport shuts down.

Residents of inner-urban areas, where property prices are high, are also more likely to have a shorter trip to work. They may be able to replace a public transport trip with a walk or cycle.

We don’t know the extent to which different employment groups will be able to innovate and adopt remote working practices under these unusual circumstances. However, people who can currently work from home are more likely to be high-income, highly educated white-collar workers. Almost half of workers in the financial services sector and 32% of the telecommunications sector use public transport - many of their roles are relatively easy to convert to working from home.


Read more: Coronavirus could spark a revolution in working from home. Are we ready?


Remote working is not an option for most low-income workers in the services sector. They must travel to their workplace if they want to be paid.

If these workers do rely on public transport to get to work, they are less likely to have a spare vehicle to commute with. This leaves few options for these households, especially in Australia’s dispersed suburbs.

A related issue is the impacts of a public transport shutdown on the all-important healthcare sector. Again, Australian journey-to-work data suggest the impact would not be as dire as some international research suggests. On census day in 2016, just 9 per cent of Australia’s healthcare and social assistance workers travelled to work by public transport.

In general, the effects of COVID-19 will no doubt be borne inequitably by lower-income Australians. They are more likely to be employed in industries worst hit by the coming economic downturn. For low-income households that depend on public transport, a shutdown would rub salt in their wounds.The Conversation

Jennifer Kent, Research Fellow, Urban and Regional Planning, University of Sydney; Alexa Delbosc, Senior Lecturer in Transport, Monash University, and Laura McCarthy, Research fellow, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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    COMMENTS

    To make a comment, please register or login
    robbo
    28th Mar 2020
    8:18am
    My mum Is 87, doesn't drive, doesn't have rellies living close by and and has never used a computer. She relies on buses to do her shopping and banking. She would be stranded without public transport.
    KSS
    28th Mar 2020
    2:50pm
    So what are you doing or researching for her to help her out?
    Senior without family
    28th Mar 2020
    3:42pm
    I know how you feel and I am saying the same thing. Some transport or more care packages has to be made available and could be subsidized by polies wages. Where are they taking a hit like the rest of Australia.
    Senior without family
    28th Mar 2020
    3:42pm
    I know how you feel and I am saying the same thing. Some transport or more care packages has to be made available and could be subsidized by polies wages. Where are they taking a hit like the rest of Australia.
    SuziJ
    28th Mar 2020
    8:19am
    Nothing. I live in a rural city on the NSW/Vic border. I rarely use public transport as I have a car.

    There are some who will be highly affected as they rely on public transport to get them from home to the shops, doctors, hospital, etc. We only have a weekday and Saturday morning bus service, so I would expect those who live near the bus services and use them would be mostly affected, as most are renters on low incomes and don't have a car as a back-up mode of transport.
    Jacka
    28th Mar 2020
    8:40am
    I feel public transport is an essential for many people you don't have cars and need to grocery shop go to the pharmacy the doctors etc. Also many need public transport to get to work to get to Centrelink to check on and look after older members of their family when they do not live with. I am in this position I have been using public transport, there are not a lot of people on the public trains and buses. people are seated well away from each other for obvious reasons. if you catch a bus the front door is shut and you are required to enter and leave through the back door obviously for driver safety a very good idea. As long as people use common sense in these difficult times they they should not be too much of a problem. Unfortunately in saying that common sense is in luxury section these days especially from The Young. Regards Jacka.
    mumwa
    28th Mar 2020
    10:08am
    Very Much - as my car's been written off last october -avoiding to full smash an-on my side of the road- reversing car , sending myself in what l thought bushes on my left but was in fact an 8 m embankment!- l was safe /my car off!!- took time to be compensated and now that it is, l just cannot go places to find another car ... only option (even if energy and time consuming- is public transport - had 2 cars options to look at/try but now l dont know how l can manage to go/see/buy one of them ... ,,, - so I AM totally dependant of PT to go buy everyday grocery (as l cannot carry too much at once) ... Regards...
    Hardworker
    28th Mar 2020
    1:27pm
    I know exactly what you mean mumwa. If you have arthritic hands, carpal tunnel syndrome, a bad back etc. etc. Groceries can be very heavy which means several trips to buy only a few things at a time. If this happens let's hope neighbours who have cars can help them out.
    KSS
    28th Mar 2020
    4:05pm
    But you can have groceries delivered even if you shop in store!
    Horace Cope
    28th Mar 2020
    10:43am
    Aren't there enough wild theories about COVID-19 without this theoretical piece? Nowhere has any government even hinted at closing down public transport in fact the response has been to hire more cleaners. Talk of the usage of public transport being lower than normal is because businesses have been forced to close, not because people are staying away in fear of the contagion. For God's sake, less negative theoretical pieces please.
    Rae
    28th Mar 2020
    2:53pm
    Very true. The stories going around are just upsetting people for no real purpose apart from speculation and gossip mongering.
    Hardworker
    28th Mar 2020
    1:22pm
    The main people to suffer will be the elderly who no longer drive, and the disadvantaged who can't afford a car. Even though I live in a fairly affluent suburb I still see people who do their grocery shopping via the bus or train. Add single mothers to that list as well, with little kids in tow. It will make life even harder for these struggling groups if they need to shut down public transport.
    KSS
    28th Mar 2020
    2:49pm
    I'd suggest that those in low paid employment are those most affected by the current restrictions anyway. So it would follow that no job, no need for travel on public transport. And this will undoubtedly get worse.

    There are already schemes in place to look after those who cannot help themselves, but people need to seek them out and register for help such as shopping or food deliveries otherwise no one knows who needs help. I thought I'd heard that some taxi drivers were part of that but I may be wrong. And things are different depending where you live of course.

    Until last week I was travelling on the bus to work as usual at 4.30am. There is no other transport where I live. There was no real change in passenger numbers until Wednesday after the announcements of the night before. The seat nearest the driver was taped off as was the ticket reader. However, for the past few weeks there was a distinct Eau de Bleach at Wynyard Station, the final stop.

    I now work from home so have no need for PT on a daily basis.
    Blossom
    30th Mar 2020
    2:45pm
    Not all people have the luxury or being able to work from home.
    Some Emergency Services Personell especially volunteers possibly travel to work on Public Transport. How do you think people are going to Medical Appointments??
    You are lucky that the buses are running as early as yours do. I can assure you they don't run that early in Adelaide, neither does the passenger trains
    Senior without family
    28th Mar 2020
    3:51pm
    I am 75, a pensioner with no family in Australia. HOw about the public transport gets sanitiseized. It could be paid for by politicians taking a cut in wages and perks because I haven't noticed any offer of them taking any financial hardship yet whilst many Australians do. I need it to go to the doctors to get the flu jab for instance and I have no relatives to help me.. Or how about they release more aged packages instead of thousands waiting in line for years . In my country town we only have three buses a day anyway. No sanitiser is available for me to buy whilst the government has plenty for themselves and is suspending parliament to help themselves. Queensland
    Senior without family
    28th Mar 2020
    3:51pm
    I am 75, a pensioner with no family in Australia. HOw about the public transport gets sanitiseized. It could be paid for by politicians taking a cut in wages and perks because I haven't noticed any offer of them taking any financial hardship yet whilst many Australians do. I need it to go to the doctors to get the flu jab for instance and I have no relatives to help me.. Or how about they release more aged packages instead of thousands waiting in line for years . In my country town we only have three buses a day anyway. No sanitiser is available for me to buy whilst the government has plenty for themselves and is suspending parliament to help themselves. Queensland
    KSS
    28th Mar 2020
    4:04pm
    Sanitiser is not as important as washing your hands cruiselover. The very best thing to do is keep your hands away from your face, wash your hands as soon as you get home and regularly wash the door handles inside and outside your front door for example.

    As for the sanitising of buses, I can only speak of my experience and the buses were certainly cleaned far more regularly than usual.

    Just stop making assumptions about what Government officers may or may not have. They shop in the same places we shop, they live in the same places we live and are subject to the same stock on shelves as we are. No amount of salary can buy what is not available!

    And just FYI; the Federal Government have refused their salary increase this year. It all helps.

    And you are not the only person who chooses to live alone or who has no family in Australia. There are many of us and we have all made our own choices. We cannot start blaming the Government or anyone else for those decisions. What you can do is research what special arrangements may have been put in place in your area. A phone call to the local council would be a good place to start.
    Priscilla
    28th Mar 2020
    7:51pm
    Not everyone has a car so public transport is necessary for people who do not drive or have a licence!
    Hairy
    28th Mar 2020
    10:09pm
    Gov should be suspending vote. They dont care if the minions die as long as they get their vote in. Bloody disgracefull
    johnp
    29th Mar 2020
    1:21pm
    The pandemic hits lower-income households harder than their higher-income counterparts in all respects, not just public transport !! And especially those that have to use public transport to get to work !!
    Senior without family
    30th Mar 2020
    9:24am
    KSS constructive criticism is good for everyone but we need to remember that many people are more fragile mentally in times of duress. You can make comments about politicians but please do not assume that I choose to live alone. I and many other residents of my retirement village definitely did not. My partner died reasonably recently after My caring for him for a long while, my next door neighbour died when, having dementia and no government package increase even though it had been applied for for a long while he was knocked down by a car when he drifted onto a local road. So champion your politicians if you like. By the way I rang my council but there was no one there as we are out voting.
    Does the new 2 rule mean that we can no longer gather to vote. Anyway most care for elderly is governed by my aged care not the local government. You made another nasty comment to Robb. How about you research for him and put what you find on here to help us all out.
    Blossom
    30th Mar 2020
    2:39pm
    I don't think KSS has even thought about the fact that you may not even live in the same State or may be several hours away from your Mum.
    Blossom
    30th Mar 2020
    2:39pm
    I don't think KSS has even thought about the fact that you may not even live in the same State or may be several hours away from your Mum.
    KB
    1st Apr 2020
    12:14pm
    My daughter travels to and from work on a daily basis a she does not own a car. Be stranded. I only use public transport when I am out. Our trains and buses in SA are cleaned on a regular basis. Robbo have you checked with your local council to see what services are available? Red Cross offers transport. Some councils offer community buses to take people shopping and banking, I I use volunteer medical transport service to access appointments Robbo you must ensure that your mother has some type of access in case of a shutdown of transport.
    KB
    1st Apr 2020
    12:14pm
    My daughter travels to and from work on a daily basis a she does not own a car. Be stranded. I only use public transport when I am out. Our trains and buses in SA are cleaned on a regular basis. Robbo have you checked with your local council to see what services are available? Red Cross offers transport. Some councils offer community buses to take people shopping and banking, I I use volunteer medical transport service to access appointments Robbo you must ensure that your mother has some type of access in case of a shutdown of transport.
    Senior without family
    1st Apr 2020
    8:24pm
    Robbie where is your m7m. In a few areas of queensland she can access st John's or transcomcare for a small payment but their hours are very limited and you have to give plenty of notice as they are in huge demand. No councils offer anything anywhere near here. Tell us where she is and we might be able to help.


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