Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Urban Mobility

Sarika Chakravarty, Sr. Sector Coordinator (MPD-2041), NIUA
Anusha Mishra, Research Associate, NIUA


The paradigms of urban mobility have drastically changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly concerning the modal choices and travel behaviour. The protocol for containing the spread of the pandemic necessitated social distancing, avoiding crowds and touching surfaces, etc. These diktats are generally hard to follow while travelling in public transport (PT) modes (buses, metro, etc.) in India, as they are usually crowded and social distancing norms are almost impossible to follow. Therefore, post the relaxation of the COVID-19 norms, even ardent PT users were apprehensive about using public transport. The feeling of safety enhances the user’s overall satisfaction with regard to public transport and anxiety has a negative effect on their perceived safety. Results of the cross-sectional survey (December 2020) conducted in eight cities of China1, indicate that travel anxiety increases as passengers are psychologically closer to the pandemic, and perceive lesser safety on public transport.

There is a widely prevalent misconception that public transit options are ‘super-spreaders’ of the virus. However, studies by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and London School of Economics (LSE), amongst others, have confirmed that contact with physical surfaces within PT infrastructure do not cause COVID-19. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has stated that the chances of contracting COVID-19 via contaminated surfaces are less than one in 10,000. Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) filters present in air-conditioned transport options circulate 25 per cent fresh air with each circulation, minimising the chances of spreading COVID-19. The primary risk from public transportation is through human-to-human contact, read overcrowding. Precautions such as social distancing and limited entry can help mitigate this risk, albeit with lower carrying capacities and impacted revenues.

The perceived risk associated with PT travel has resulted in the drop in ridership of PT modes. Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) reported a 75 per cent drop in the average daily ridership in July 2020 when the first lockdown ended and the PT services were resumed with limited capacities. By August 2021, the ridership had increased to 18 lakh per day, way below the pre-COVID-19 daily ridership of 35 lakhs, even after the bus services were restored to their full capacity. Similarly, the bus fleet of Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) that used to carry around 3.2 million passengers till March 2020, was transporting only 1.1 million passengers in July 2021.

It can be argued that the drop in ridership could also be due to the new ‘work from home’ (WfH) culture. However, this new normal may not impact cities in India as much, since only 18.4 per cent of the urban workforce is comprised of formal salaried workforce, while a majority is informal wage workforce (39%) and informal self-employed workforce (42%)2 for whom WfH is not an option. Therefore, in Indian cities particularly, the drop in ridership can be directly linked with the commuters’ psychological response to the pandemic.  

As things normalise, affordability will be the deciding factor in determining whether a commuter reverts to undertaking travel by PT or prefers to use private vehicles or app-based mobility alternatives for commuting. Results of an user survey show that 72 per cent of existing users are captive users and would return to using public transport3. However, people who can afford to buy a private vehicle would definitely do so and refrain from undertaking travel by PT. This is reflected in the sale of vehicles in 2021 (9.1 lakh units) which have now restored to the  2019 numbers, despite the slump in the sale of private vehicles in 2020 due to the economic after-effect of the COVID-194.

The need for personal space for travelling has become premium post-pandemic. According to a user survey conducted in 72 different cities in July 20205, while trips by PT and shared modes (metro, bus, rail and shared autos/cabs) have seen a significant decline, trips by modes that offer personal space (private autos/cabs, 2-wheelers and cars) and by walking and cycling, have increased. While the increase in trips by private vehicles is worrisome, the increase in active travel (walking and cycling trips) is a very favourable trend that should be furthered to promote sustainable low-carbon mobility and environmental preservation. Some trips have also converted to non-trips due to the WfH trend.

The post-pandemic scenario presents an opportunity to swing the pendulum either way. In a business-as-usual scenario, the sale of private vehicles would continue to grow. However, if investments are made towards developing active travel infrastructure, a modal shift towards active travel (walking and cycling) can be enabled. Active travel would be an healthy alternative to road transport that  contributes to more than 90 per cent of the total CO2 emissions (2018)6. Promoting active travel would have a significant impact on reducing harmful emissions, noise pollution and congestions, and increase the liveability of the urban areas. According to the European Union (EU), encouraging active travel and public transport would cause a 33 per cent reduction in the number of car journeys taken in urban areas, and consequent congestion and emissions. A widespread shift to active travel would also have far-ranging benefits for the physical and mental well-being of the citizens.

Efforts to propagate active travel would be very pertinent to the urban trips in India as almost 39 per cent of these are short trips of under 5 km. length (2019)7 and can be easily undertaken by walk, cycling or other non-motorised modes. Adequate investments could be made towards provision/improving the walking and cycling infrastructure in the city. Cities could undertake the preparation of Active Travel Plans for the development of city-wide active travel networks. Active travel pathways could be planned alongside the blue-green infrastructure of the city, with a definite advantage of segregating pedestrians’ and cyclists’ movement from the vehicular traffic. Active travel could also be encouraged by undertaking area-level improvements, be it around transit nodes or as part of all local area plans, layout plans, etc. Amsterdam and Groningen are the most famous examples of successful planning of Active Travel pathways. In Amsterdam, active travel accounted for 45 per cent of daily mobility in 20168. The city of Groningen was able to achieve a 38 per cent modal shift in favour of bicycle trips by limiting car access into city centres, restrictive parking policies, designating car-free streets and squares, and expanding on public transport and NMT facilities. Similar such initiatives are being undertaken in Indian cities also and can be further upscaled. 

Another positive outcome of the pandemic could be the formulation and adoption of a robust WfH or hybrid work policy by organisations, corporates, etc. This move would reduce the work-related trips, at least for the populace engaged in the tertiary sector. With the ongoing shift in the urban economy towards tertiary sector activities, such policy would have a significant impact on the number of urban trips in the long term.

Despite the significant and destabilising impact of the pandemic on all aspects of life, it does provide an opportunity to reconfigure post-COVID transport policy and practice, make it more environmentally sustainable, focus on facilitating active travel and modify individual travel behaviour. The concerns regarding the safety of travelling in the PT should also be overcome by awareness generation initiatives and following Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that ensure the safety of PT  users.  Concerted efforts towards achieving these objectives should be taken or the need for personal travel space may just lead to an increase in the vehicle population.


 Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

3 Raunak R., Sawant N., & Sinha S. Impact of Covid-19 on Urban Mobility in Indian Cities

4 Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM)

5 Ibid, [3]

6 Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change, Government of India

7 Statista Research Department

8 Statistics Netherlands (CBS) (Netherlands Travel Survey (OViN) 2016