Is Mass Rapid Transport the weakest link in kick starting global economies or one of the keys to its success?

Is Mass Rapid Transport the weakest link in kick starting global economies or one of the keys to its success?

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By Ralph Isitt, Technical Director and Andrew Postings, Transport Director

The Issue

COVID-19 can spread from person-to-person through fine respiratory droplets from coughs and exhales in the air (approx. 20%) or falling onto surfaces and coming into contact with them (approx. 80%). Then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.(1)

These aerosol type particles can spread approximately 1m and remain suspended in the air for several hours depending on the conditions. The virus can live on cardboard for up to 8 hours, plastic and stainless steel for up to 24 hours.

As companies start to review their strategies for returning the work, measures to safeguard working environments are being highlighted and assessed. However, if a large proportion of the working population in large cities such as London commute and rely on overcrowded forms of transport, how can we ensure workers even get to work safely? Any attempt to address the layouts of stations etc. to improve social distancing will be pointless if the density of people on transport such as railway trains, underground trains and buses are to continue at the commonly maximum capacity seen before the lockdown.

These considerations should also be applied to our collective thinking about global commuting and air travel. Clearly, these forms of transport are similar; social distancing, avoiding air borne or surface contamination will provide key challenges.

Given the risk of infection from using public transport, will people even want to return to our cities, and office working? Will companies want to have their offices in cities? Alternatively, will they move out to business parks in the suburbs?

The trend of office relocation has, for many years’ tempted companies out of the city. This decision was based on the reduced rental cost of office space, the possibility of having a bespoke office built for them that met their needs, a better environment to provide to their staff and a possible reduction in salaries associated with working outside of cities.  Given the current circumstances will this tend now accelerate?

There is a lot to be said for the business park environment. With a greater reliance on the automobile, and an increasing shift to electric and hybrid, reducing carbon, is this the turning point? The car is the perfect mode of transport for social distancing and isolating one’s self from any form of virus. Even with the worst traffic jam, you are a minimum of 5m from anyone and in a sealed environment.

The counter argument is, that people want the excitement and social aspects of working in the city,  with its diverse social offer, shops, restaurants, bars etc. (assuming they will still be there?) For this reason, London and other major cities attract the best staff from around the country and the world.

Our transport system is clearly the weak link in reducing the spread of viruses. So what needs to be done?

A Proposition

In the last seven weeks use of the London Underground has fallen by well over 90% from that of January. Annual passengers carried by London Underground previously totalled 1.35 billion individual journeys, with the busiest station, Waterloo, serving 100 million passengers.

The Tube is a key ingredient in the success of London as a Global City and is instrumental in enabling business, retail, social activities and essential key services to happen. If Global Cities are to rise again we need mass transit systems but we need to understand how we can occupy them in the future.

We need to look into news ways of occupying and using mass transit systems across the world – from how we get passengers to and from trains (space/ volume/ separation), how we control access in and out of stations (space/ tech), how we protect staff, how we clean spaces, and what materials we might choose to use in the future.

We should be mindful that these structures are Civic Buildings with an importance in PsychoGeographical terms and in their inhabitation by people of all cultures, society and wealth – they are important, constantly occupied democratic buildings and we lose them at our peril.

The UK Government recommends that the minimum distance between those not in the same household is 2m, and this clearly results in a significant shift in the ways that we all, as passengers, and as station staff and train operators both use and work in the entire rail and mass transit systems.

Recent research from Harvard postulates that a “small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter) leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all-cause mortality” (2) .

Urban mass transit systems such as the Underground using rail and steel wheels assist in significantly reducing the amounts of PM2.5 emitted though ICE exhaust products and tyre wear (3).

Transit systems typically use high quality, long-life and through finish architectural materials, with expected operational lifespans of 25+ years. Some legacy materials such as bronze have inherent Oligodynamic properties, and examples of handrails originally installed in the early 1930s still exist in stations. These kinds of materials and others such as photocatalytic TiO2 coatings can all assist in reducing the rate of transmission, not just of COVID-19 but of future coronavirus epidemics. We can also look to combine traditional and modern finishes to mitigate transmission between the public as much as is reasonably practicable.

Digital tools based on BIM enable us to test and analyse how people occupy and use public spaces.  These ‘Digital Twins’ and passenger flow modelling software allow us to test through simulation, how new ways of inhabiting spaces will affect the operation of mass transit systems in the short, medium and long terms.

As we begin to repopulate our public and working spaces we must be able to safely operate our mass transit systems in order to be able to re-inhabit our cities, get people back to work, bring our economies back online and engage in cultural and social activities.

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