Transportation Planning Casebook/COVID-19 and Public Transport


Shut down policy

Typical case: Wuhan

This is the strictest type of policy for public transport. Under such a type of policy, it is mandatory for citizens to quarantine at home, almost no trips would be generated. Wuhan adopted this policy during the peak of the pandemic for 68 days.


  • Effectively prevent the spread of the pandemic
  • Quick recovery


  • Restricting freedom of travel
  • Difficult to guarantee the supply and delivery of daily necessities. Developed e-commerce system and sufficient number of volunteers required.

Restriction policyEdit

Typical case: Sydney

Basically, there are two approaches for the restriction. One is to restrict the occupancy of a public transport carriage. Sydney has been adopting this policy to ensure social distance. The restriction of occupancy is constantly adjusted to the risk levels of the pandemic. Another is the entry restrictions for passengers according to their health status and travel history. Wuhan adopted this type of policy by using a health code system.


  • Reducing the risk of infection in public spaces


  • Wasted capacity for Sydney
  • Privacy issues for Wuhan

Guidance policyEdit

Typical case: London

This type of policy includes recommending people to wear masks, keep social distancing, and not to make non-essential journeys. Almost every city has formulated this type of policy, and most of the public transport policies in London are of this type.


  • Low cost
  • Quick and easy implementation


  • Higher risk of infection
Figure . Timeframe of implemented policy at three different city(Wuhan, Sydney, London)
Comparison of impacts of different policy types
Wuhan Sydney London
Policy Type Shut Down Restriction Guidance
The last date when the daily confirmed cases exceed 100 5th March 2020 3rd April 2020 Have not been achieved until now
Duration for the monthly rail usage restored to 60% 7 months 11 months Have not been achieved until now

List of ActorsEdit

Actors Impacts and Involvements
Vehicle Designers/Manufacturers -Vehicle makers need to ensure vehicles meet government requirements for COVID-19, for example creating enclosed driver areas in buses, replacing copper or stainless-steel stanchions with plastic and hygienic materials inside the cabin or carriage.

-While vehicle makers cannot respond with such agility to the shock of covid-19, they will need to consider how to make public transport vehicles flexible and resistant to future public health shock

Transport Agencies -Transport agencies include private or public company running the public transport services, such as Sydney Metro or Manly Fast Ferries.

-Reduction of fare revenue due to lower patronage might lead to change of services contributed to greater losses, such as shutting down of bus/metro line..

-Agencies adopted key operational strategies to minimise the spread of COVID-19 and provide adequate public transport service to meet the demand change. Example of actions include social distancing conditions and adjust route for work from home situation

Government -Government keep public transport as a remain travel option for commuters and travellers to maintain economic activity. Meanwhile, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, government published new law and restrictions, such as the restriction for social distancing and mandatory face masks.

-Poor handling of the pandemic will decrease voter sentiment

Customer -Customers during COVID-19 include workers who demand physical presence for their works, travellers who cannot drive or seek private transport (for example, low-income families), and a small amount of leisure travellers.

-Customer can expose to health risk while taking public transport.

Employees in Public Transport Section -Public transport employees are exposed to large number of people and increased risk of COVID-19 infection. Protections for the employees are applied, for example, PVC shield installed for bus drivers in Sydney and health code required for taking the public transport in Wuhan.

-Due to revenue reduction and services shutdown caused by COIVD-19, temporary or permanent termination of employment can happen to the people working in public transport sections.


Month Response
Mar 2020 Increased frequency and intensity of cleaning: 1,800 extra cleaners wiping down and disinfecting high-touch surfaces, providing hand sanitiser, etc.
May 2020 Increasing metro peak-period frequency to 1 service every 4 minutes

Public transport restrictions: 12 people on a bus, 32 people in a train carriage

COVID-19 safe transport plan released: temporary parking arrangements, pop-up cycling and walking options, physical distancing implemented on public transport and significant capacity reduction, increased frequency of all services

1.5-metre social distancing on public transport services

June 2020 3,300 extra bus and train services
July 2020 Public transport peak capacity was doubled from May COVID-19 safe plan limits.
December 2020 More green dots: train capacity increased from 44 to 55%, buses from 38 to 45%, and ferries from 36 to 51%.

50% network capacity (1.3 million daily trips compared to the typical 2.4 million daily trips)

January 2021 Masks made mandatory on public transport
March 2021 Mandatory mask rules on public transport removed
April 2021 Capacity increased to 75%
Month Response
March 2020 23 March PM announces stay at home order.

Guidance for using public transport published on 26th March and lockdown measures legally come into force.

May 2020 On 9 May, Transport Secretary announces 2 billion pound investment into improving walking and cycling

On 10th May, lockdown to start being lifted

On 11 May, UK Government recommends people to wear masks on public transport

June 2020 Face masks are made mandatory on public transport on 15 June

Rented motorised scooters are permitted to be used on roads to reduce the amount of people using public transport on 30 June

July 2020 New guidelines allow people to use public transport for non-essential journeys

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations 2020 comes into force making people wear masks in public transport hubs.

September 2020 On 22nd September, return to working from home.
October 2020 The Government proposes to scrap free travel for commuters under the age of 18 as Transport for London's finances were in ruins due to less commuters. The Mayor of London successful in stopping this change.
November 2020 Transport for London receives 1.8 billion pound bailout to keep buses running
December 2020 - April 2021 Region lock downs put in place when spread gets out of hand. Current lockdown in Ontario London.
Month Response
January 2020 Wuhan government shut down all public transport

Lockdown law in Wuhan started. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Wuhan started a travel on 23 January 2020, the government shutdown all inter-state and in-city public transportation, including metro, bus, ferry, taxi, train, airplane

February 2020 Stricter version of lockdown in the city of Wuhan started. Residents are required to stay at home unless with a special excuse.
March 2020 Some of metro and bus lines were restored on 28 March 2020

Scan Health code check in system required to take public transport, masks are mandatory while taking public transport, temperature check at each metro station and large bus station

April 2020 All public transport services were restored on 22 April 2020
July 2020 Mask and temperature check are still mandatory for public transport

No need to scan the health code for bus and metro from 1 July 2020, but for ferries still need to scan the health code


Map of the Sydney Rail Network Source: Transport for NSW(2021)
Figure . Public Transport live map in Sydney at 16:56 May 7th 2021

Real-time map of Sydney public transport can be check at

Figure . Bus and Night Bus Map for Central London

Policy IssuesEdit

Policy issues arising from public transport responses are varied. In many cases, these issues are intertwined so that an issue in one area will affect policy in another area.

Public healthEdit

Public transport policy responses have the foremost goal of maintaining public health in the midst of the pandemic. Public health is conducive to the economic recovery.

Economic recoveryEdit

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated shutdowns result in economic downturns and rising unemployment. Public transport is crucial to the economic recovery since it provides reliant commuters and individuals with the travel means to get to their jobs and contribute to economic activity.

Fare revenueEdit

In Sydney, public transport capacity limits and lockdowns substantially decreased patronage by 80% in April 2020 (Rabe, 2020), equating to 51 million fewer trips taken on Sydney’s rail, bus, and ferry network in March 2020 compared to March 2019 (Rabe & Singhal, 2020). Low passenger volumes and decreased efficiency resulted in NSW public transport revenue falling by $360M in the three months to June 2020 (Rabe, 2020). Experts predict that [patronage] may never resemble the sometimes overcrowded pre-coronavirus levels (Rabe & Gladstone, 2020) because of significant behavioural change among CBD professionals including rising popularity of working from home and walking, cycling, and driving to work


Workers, students, and other transport users rely on the public transport network to get to where they need to go which in turn supports the economic recovery. There is also wide risk of people making long-term switches to private cars (lock-in) which would increase road congestion, vehicular emissions, and reduced public transport patronage. For example in NSW, 800,000 additional people needing to travel without using public transport in May, 2020, which would cause widespread road congestion. Some strategies which could be taken to alleviate this include: priority bus lanes, increase services, cycleways, options to solve the first- and last-mile problem, contactless ticketing, peak spreading, active transport and micromobility. Future policy should aim to "lock-in" the positive habits gained during lockdown and travel restrictions as well, including multi-person video conferencing and working from home which helps to decrease travel demand.


Equity issues arise in the geographical distribution of public transport service, especially in relation to areas where public transport has a higher mode share. In Sydney, commuter numbers on buses in outer suburbs were between 60 and 65% through June 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, while the inner west (48%) and the eastern suburbs (42%) saw much lower patronage numbers in June 2020 (Rabe & Gladstone, 2020). Public transport capacity limits will cause a larger volume of passengers to lose the means to travel in the outer suburbs which has equity implications.



The growth of covid-19 in Sydney saw various public transport responses which are likely to have contributed to its subsequent fall. Important to the fall was the government mandate to ban non-essential travel and requiring businesses to switch to remote working arrangements. The Apple Mobility Index, which indicates the number of Apple Maps travel queries made during 2020, saw up to an 80% decrease for driving, public transit, and walking modes after the government mandate. Not all businesses are suited to remote work: construction and grocery shopping are good examples of this. While Wuhan took the drastic measures of locking down the public transport network entirely, Sydney’s relatively low case numbers did not warrant a total shutdown. To maintain a balance between economic activity and public health, public transport operating procedures were altered. Cleaning regimes were substantially increased, significant capacity limits were imposed on all modes to maintain passenger social distancing. Many services were frequently at capacity which necessitated increasing frequency of service: 3,300 extra bus and train services were added in June 2020 as post-lockdown travel increased. Coinciding with the fall of covid-19 case numbers (May - July), public transport capacity limits were doubled to cater for more trips. Social distancing rules were mandated through the use of green dot stickers indicating where passengers were permitted to occupy based on capacity limits. In the figure below, the orange dots represent the seating arrangement of three social distancing scenarios where scenario 1 represents the May 2020 capacity limits, and scenario 2 and 3 representing the July 2020 and December 2020 limits.

Sydney Trains seating arrangements for various distancing scenariosSource: WSP (2020)
Apple Mobility Index trends for driving, public transport, and walking in Sydney during 2020Source: Yao et al. (2020)

Among the timeline of public transport responses are specific changes to operating procedures to maintain customer service and health safety in the midst of the pandemic. Sydney public transport changed service capacity level indicators to reflect the newly implemented social distancing rules and capacity limits. This gave customers greater information when choosing the travel mode. Automatic opening light-rail doors increased air circulation and minimised passenger contact points to reduce the risk of transmission. Public transport signs, digital billboards, and variable message signs were used to transmit news and information about new covid-19 rules and restrictions to a large number of people. Transport for NSW also converted a broad range of services into contactless methods: ticket validation, closure of human ticket sales booths. Social distancing measures also affect station concourses and platforms and station staff were increased to assist with customer service and managing customer flow.

Observing trends in the transmission of covid-19 in NSW provides the context to the timeline of public transport responses. COVID-19 in NSW can be categorised into three waves:

  • Wave 1 - March 2020 - May 2020
  • Wave 2 - July 2020 - November 2020
  • Wave 3 - December 2020 - January 2021
Monthly Opal Trips by Train or Bus in 2019-2021. Significant decrease in travel following the March lockdowns, gradual restoration of travel in the following months, and recurring decrease in travel during December-January during the Christmas and New Year Holiday period Source: Transport for NSW (2021)

Wave 1 coincides with the most extreme public transport capacity restrictions beginning May 2020, following the March 2020 lockdowns in which Sydney residents were legislated to work from home if possible and avoid non-essential travel. Wave 2 did not receive much response from Transport for NSW, as travel continuously increased from the April bottom. The emergence of wave 3 prior to Christmas resulted in the mask-wearing rules in January 2021 in order to avoid a worsening outbreak. It is worth noting that public transport travel decreases in December and January due to Christmas holidays, evident in both 2019 and 2020 data. Sydney Public Transport network modes consist of train, bus, metro, ferry, light rail, but the latter three are omitted from the analysis due to relatively small mode share.

Hourly capacity indicators with number of buses throughout the day. Source: WSP (2020)

The impact of capacity limits on Sydney Public Transport are highlighted through case study of the M52 bus line (now 500X) which runs from Parramatta to the Sydney CBD via Ryde. The diagram shows the temporal demand profile of stop 46 on the M52 bus route. The AM peak (8-9am) has the most services, but 50% of them are at standing room only status which is not adherent to social distancing scenarios. There is additional capacity available before and after the AM peak, but there are a smaller number of services. Transit operators can increase capacity in the shoulder periods or users can shift their demand to the interpeak. Alternatively, there is scope to increase the number of services in the AM peak but this has further cost implications.

NSW COVID-19 case number trends in 2020-21. There are three distinct waves. Source: NSW Health (2021)


Covid-19 has had a major impact on London’s transport systems and will likely permanently effect the way in which the industry functions. The arrival of Covid-19 in late February of 2020 met a Government in disarray. Due to a failed initial response by the UK government, they have experienced the pandemic on a very large scale. Currently Ontario, a region of London is under lockdown. The UK has opted regional lock downs when the spread gets out of hand and it is recommended that people do not use public transport.  This has resulted in an extremely decreased amount of public transport usage. So much so that there has been a multi billion-dollar bailout for the industry. Transport for London received a $3.2 billion dollar bailout to keep buses running as they saw up to a 90% drop in fare revenue in 2020. TfL was in such a bad state that the government was considering scrapping the policy that allowed free fares for under 18s, this proposal however was petitioned against by the mayor successfully.

Due to the pandemic businesses have realised how much cheaper it is to work from home and that they don’t need much office space. Software like Zoom and Teams make taking public transport to a meeting archaic and expensive. People have also found value in the time that they would normally spend traveling. The data below from the London Government shows just to what extent the usage has been affected by the pandemic.

Rail Usage:

Rail usage in London compared to usage in previous year. (Source: UK Government)

Bus Usage:

Bus usage in London compared to usage in previous year. (Source: UK Government)

Motor Vehicle Usage:

Motor Vehicle usage in London compared to usage in previous year. (Source: UK Government)

According to a survey by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry the idea of working from home will affect future transport policy even after the pandemic has ended in London. The poll shows that 52% of Businesses were planning on having some form remote working practices after the pandemic ends. Additionally more then a third of the participants stated that they would continue the levels of working from home to the same degree as during the pandemic even after its over. This will have a large permanent affect on London's transport industry if this does come into effect and the city will just have to wait and see what implications this will have on Government policy and how it will handle less commuters with existing infrastructure that will continue to use money.


Wuhan is the geographic centre of China. It has a population of eleven million, which is over two times that of Sydney.

A month before spring festival, COVID-19 was discovered. Further spatial spread of this disease was of great concern in view of the upcoming Spring Festival (chunyun), during which there are typically 3 billion travel movements over the 40-day holiday period, which runs from 15 days before the Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year) to 25 days afterward. People fell into panic at the beginning. But afterward, as support across the country arrived, people gradually began to accept the lockdown policy. During that period, all public transport were shut down. There was zero travel demand, as barriers were used to block people from leaving their residential complex. After 68 days of lock down, China had maintained a certain period of zero newly cases, thus the lock down policy was lifted. The main policy during this period was the health code policy. To obtain a health code, people were required to report their travel history in their smart phones. Then, each time people enter a shopping mall or a metro station, they had to scan the QR code and had their temperature taken. A green colour of health code represents permission to such public spaces. Anyone who had ever been to a high-risk area or exposed to Covid-19 patients within the past 14 days would not be allowed for free travel. Finally, since July, the health code policy was lifted. Mandatory mask wearing was the only policy for public transport, and the public spaces became crowded as usual.

Figure .Metro Usage during and after the pandemic

Transport patterns for people were significantly influenced in last year. In April 2020, the first month since the metro services were resumed, the metro passenger flow only restored to 14%. However, China is recovering faster than the other countries. Today, the metro patronage in Wuhan restored to 90%. Some other cities in China have just broken their daily metro patronage records during the past International Worker's Day.

Figure . Change of mode after the pandemic

According to a survey conducted in April 2020 by ITDP, mode share for public transport dropped significantly during the pandemic. Travel mode for some of the previous public transport users transferred to walking or private cars at that time. Only 34% of them were still willing to use public transport in April 2020. 24% of them transferred to private cars, 17% transferred to taxi or car-hailing, the rest of them selected walking or biking.

As a brief conclusion, Wuhan acted fast and adopted the strictest policy. There was a huge damage to the economy and public transport patronage. However, after a temporary change of travel patterns in the middle of last year, the travel demand and public transport usage was quickly restored to the pre-covid situations.

Discussion QuestionsEdit

  1. Imagine that you are the managing director of Transport for London in early 2020. What measures would you put in place in response to COVID-19?
  2. Can you demonstrate how effective the Sydney public transport measures have been using the data and timeline of events?
  3. How have the 3 cities differed in their public transport response?
  4. What is the most concerning policy issue, and why? Can you relate the issue in some way to your own experience?


Charting the COVID-19 situation: How Australia is managing the pandemic [WWW Document], 2020. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Chen, Q., Pan, S., 2020. Transport-related experiences in China in response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives 8, 100246.

Eleanor Short, Taylor Gouge, Gareth Mills, 2020. Public transport and COVID-19 white paper.

ITDP, 2020a. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on urban traffic and future trends (In Chinese) [WWW Document]. ITDP-CHINA. URL (accessed 5.6.21).

ITDP, 2020b. Post-Pandemic, Chinese Cities Gradually Reopen Transport Networks [WWW Document]. Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. URL (accessed 5.6.21).

Mozur, P., Zhong, R., Krolik, A., 2020. In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags. The New York Times.

NSW Ministry of Health, n.d. COVID-19 cases by notification date, location and likely source of infection.csv.

Public Transport Visualisation- All Modes Patronage [WWW Document], n.d. . Tableau Software. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Rabe, T., 2020a. “Carmageddon”: Thousands of Sydneysiders to be pushed off public transport [WWW Document]. The Sydney Morning Herald. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Rabe, T., 2020b. Sydney public transport capacity to increase as mask use dwindles [WWW Document]. The Sydney Morning Herald. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Rabe, T., 2020c. Hundreds of millions lost on transport during COVID-19 [WWW Document]. The Sydney Morning Herald. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Rabe, T., Gladstone, N., 2020. “It could take years”: Slow recovery predicted for public transport [WWW Document]. The Sydney Morning Herald. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Rabe, T., Singhal, P., 2020. The 51 million times Sydneysiders didn’t tap on in March [WWW Document]. The Sydney Morning Herald. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Tian, H., Liu, Y., Li, Y., Wu, C.-H., Chen, B., Kraemer, M.U.G., Li, B., Cai, J., Xu, B., Yang, Q., Wang, B., Yang, P., Cui, Y., Song, Y., Zheng, P., Wang, Q., Bjornstad, O.N., Yang, R., Grenfell, B.T., Pybus, O.G., Dye, C., 2020. An investigation of transmission control measures during the first 50 days of the COVID-19 epidemic in China. Science 368, 638–642.

Transport for NSW, C.E.D., n.d. COVID-19: Safer travel guidance [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 5.3.21).

Ward, M., 2021. Masks mandatory in Greater Sydney shops, on public transport; new restrictions for events, gyms [WWW Document]. The Sydney Morning Herald. URL (accessed 5.4.21).

Wuhan Metro Flow [WWW Document], n.d. . URL (accessed 5.6.21).

Yan, W., Yao, H., Chen, L., Rayaprolu, H., Moylan, E., 2021. Impacts of School Reopening on Variations in Local Bus Performance in Sydney. Transportation Research Record 03611981211006723.