“Poetry should ride the bus
in a fat woman's Safeway bag
between the greens n chicken wings
to be served with Tuesday’s dinner”

— Poetry Should Ride the Bus by Ruth Forman

For contemporary urban planners, Forman’s poetic “ride the bus” metaphor might as well be taken literally: mass transit is at the heart of low-carbon inclusive transportation systems. However, as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, even loyal passengers have turned away from buses and trains.

The perceived risks of crowded air-conditioned environments have resulted in a 90% decline in rail passengers in Thailand. Governments have opted for temporary service cuts to control transmission, while transit advocates continue promoting Covid-safety measures. For those who cannot afford to work from home, do not have a car, cannot travel by bike or on foot due to long or unsafe commutes, or whose housework and caring responsibilities rely on multiple daily trips, choice is a luxury.

It is not just an issue of private versus public transportation. The pandemic has brought out further questions about who gets to travel, whose livelihoods are affected by immobility and whose health and basic needs are constrained by pandemic restrictions. It is also about where resources and services are located in the city and who they serve.

Framing the pandemic as a disaster can help prepare for and manage future health emergencies. The impacts of Covid-19 have gone beyond the scope of public health and epidemiology. They cascade onto social and economic systems. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) practitioners and policymakers tend to overlook biological hazards as a cause of disaster.

At the same time, transport and other urban systems directly influence how the virus spreads and communities respond. To build healthy cities that can withstand future pandemics, actors in city planning, health and DRR need to revisit the everyday experiences of urban dwellers, particularly the most vulnerable. Together, they must “ride the bus”.

Passengers riding half-empty bus in daytime with dark blue seats, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

To build healthy cities that can withstand future pandemics, actors in city planning, health and DRR need to “ride the bus.” Photo: Jade Pham / Unsplash.

Revisiting urban mobility from a DRR perspective

Public health and city planning share an interlaced history. The practice of planning started when 19th-century industrial societies were forced to rethink the design of their settlements in the face of major disease outbreaks. The inequality challenges in and of city planning also date back to the use of planning for colonial domination, segregation and dispossession amid bubonic plague and other epidemics of the past. Advanced understanding of systemic risk adds further complexity to the current health crisis. Planning interventions alone are no longer enough. Reflecting on disaster management, hazard exposure and vulnerability reduction can offer valuable insights.

In the midst of a disaster, community preparedness, emergency response and evacuation need mobility. Frontline and essential workers rely on safe travel. Transportation influences how those in need access health services and goods and equipment reach quarantine centers and hospitals. Flexibility in transport systems can allow for temporary and creative transport solutions during a pandemic or other emergency.

Mobility also has implications for exposure. Increased connectivity between urban centers, towns and rural areas means that infectious diseases can easily spread across borders. At the same time, labour divisions in the household and social norms determine who and how one bears the burden of exposure as they travel. In many cities, women have fewer transport options than men and are less likely to use a personal vehicle. However, they make more trips due to their over-representation in the healthcare sector and unequal care duties, both of which saw increased pressure during the health crisis.

Disaster response can also benefit from creative and flexible transportation solutions. In Viet Nam, where mass quarantine has been a key strategy to control transmission, public buses not in service due to social distancing are mobilized to transport people to and from quarantine sites.

Mobility also has implications for hazard exposure. Increased connectivity between urban centres, towns and rural areas means that infectious diseases can easily spread across borders through the movement of people, animals and goods. Mobility can influence the frequency and reach of diseases as well as the development of drug resistant genes.

Risk and vulnerability to disasters are also subject to the impacts of urban movement. Active transport such as biking and walking offer preventive health and well-being benefits. A shift away from a car-dominated system reduces air pollution, with positive impacts on health and risk of severe respiratory symptoms. However, communities that live far away from employment opportunities and services and close to other sources of pollution bear disproportionate risks.

Formal public transit and active travel do not cover the whole picture. In many cities of the Global South, informal transportation, such as jeepneys in Manila, colectivos in Mexico City or minibus taxis in Cape Town, offers a more flexible, affordable and accessible alternative to the formal transit network. In fact, they are an important service complementing the formal system and a substantial source of income and livelihood for urbanites. In the case of disaster disrupting formal transit, the role of the informal becomes even more important. In the Covid-19 context, Filipino jeepneys have been hailed as the safer mode of mass transit due to their open air flow and social distancing measures.

Passengers riding jeepney, Manila, Philippines, April 2019

Filipino jeepneys have been hailed as the safer mode of mass transit due to their open air flow and social distancing measures. Photo: Yannes Kiefer / Unsplash .

What’s next?

The pandemic has exposed critical fault lines in the urban transport system, of which the above discussion is just a piece of the puzzle. In a post-Covid-19 world, new challenges will emerge for sustainable transportation planning: the pandemic has triggered the perception of public transit as unsafe and the potential for further reliance on personal vehicles. As with any disaster, it may also be seen as an opportunity for transformation and chance for fundamental and systemic changes that address the root causes of risk and vulnerability. In recovering from the pandemic, cities could invest in informal transit to increase its efficiency and sustainability, with an objective to build disaster preparedness and reduce the social and economic vulnerability of those who rely on such systems for both livelihoods and mobility.

Mobility is just one of the many urban questions that Covid-19 reminds us of, including urban density, housing, water and sanitation. A DRR perspective can offer new ways of problematizing such issues and informing solutions. More research is needed to unpack the nexus between public health, DRR and urban planning.

This perspective was informed by research under the Building resilience through inclusive and climate-adaptive disaster risk reduction programme, led by SEI Asia in partnership with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, which investigates how public health and biological hazards can be integrated in land use planning using a rights-based and gender-inclusive approach.