Transport was one of the worst-hit sectors during the COVID-19 lockdown. To contain the spread of the virus, many people started working from home, which reduced traffic congestion on roads and temporarily improved air quality during the lockdown. Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, saw a 150-200% increase in the number of days with ‘Good’ air-quality levels in August 2020 as compared to 2019 (figure 2).
Figure 1: Top 10 Most Polluted Cities in the World, 2019
Source: 2019 World Air Quality Report by IQAir
Figure 2: Number of days by PM2.5 quality levels in August 2019 and 2020 at 3 locations in Delhi
Source: Delhi Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board and U.S Embassy and Consulates in India
But these pollution-free days will not last long unless measures are taken to reduce congestion and improve air quality. Simply staying home is not a long term solution to air pollution or congestion on roads. Countries like Singapore are expecting public transport ridership to return to around 90% of pre-COVID levels by 2021. Individual and shared ride-hailing service providers like Uber are already claiming that ridership has gone up to 80% of pre-COVID levels in big cities like Delhi. The ITDP India Programme’s survey also showed that the use of private motor vehicles is expected to grow by 12% in the next six months due to the perceived risk of infection in public transport. Given this expected demand, electrifying transport offers a way towards green recovery, ensuring people can travel as and when they need to and contributing to a long term solution towards reducing air pollution.
In shared mobility, companies like Uber have already announced their targets to electrify large part of their fleet in the next two years in India. Despite growth in private mobility, such decisions by shared-mobility providers can help cities become green till public transport systems are strengthened. A perceived higher risk and physical distancing norms are likely to impact public transport ridership. To revive trust in public transport, Indian cities will have to provide more safe, comfortable, reliable, and convenient services to its users. Increasing the number of buses is an important step to achieve this.
COVID-19 has provided the transport industry and local governments with the push they need to transition to cleaner fuels, expand their fleet, and provide better and more efficient services. The incentives being provided under Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME-II) Scheme by the Government of India provide cities with an opportunity to strengthen their fleet with electric buses. FAME I and II schemes so far have sanctioned 5985 buses with a total outlay of about INR 3500 crores. This will enable a green recovery for public transport post-COVID, as well as help cities in providing a robust transport system that can withstand any future catastrophes.