The effects of COVID 19 on Georgia’s public transport system

Active Travel and Healthy Streets, Georgia, News

EASST partner Gela Kvashilava explores the effects of COVID 19 on the public transport system in Georgia, now and in the future.

On presenting the government’s anti-crisis plan on 24th April, the Georgian Prime Minister sought to reassure the public that all steps taken by the government during the current time are to protect the health and safety of Georgia’s citizens first, and then the survival of the economy.

On 27th April, the first phase of re-opening the economy began. This has included permitting travel by light vehicles as well as the full operation of taxis, online trade (wholesale and retail), deliveries, and the resumption of open-air agricultural markets. However, the government statement said nothing about public transport and intercity mobility, which is very important if we are talking about the resumption of economic activities in the regions.

Transport is the main driving force of the economy. For a large proportion of the population in Georgia, the operation of public transport is vital. The use of private vehicles and taxis is financially unviable for most, with only 20% of the population owning a car. And, as developments in recent weeks have shown us, the activities of many companies are directly related to and/or wholly reliant on the safe and efficient operation of public transport.

The spread of COVID-19 has, however, dealt a tremendous blow to transport and transportation in both developed and developing countries. This has been due to both a lack of demand (due to lockdowns) and a lack of confidence in safety and hygiene. In order to re-build, we therefore need a comprehensive strategy and funding that focuses on the recovery of the transport system by reducing the risk of infection but also building public trust.

The strategy should include strict measures, such as only allowing transport companies and those compliant with government guidelines to operate. These guidelines should be developed jointly by the Ministries of Economy and Health and based on foreign experience, with measures such as: frequent disinfection and cleaning of vehicles, maintaining physical distancing with the use of stickers and information to passengers; introducing an online passenger booking system; and shifting to electronic and contactless tickets. For intercity transportation, it will be more important than ever to provide passengers with direct and transparent information about schedules, schedule changes and intervals, including through social media.

Employees of transport companies must also be provided with information about the risk of infection and what actions they can take to reduce this risk, including the use of personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer). Where it is not possible to sell online tickets, drivers and ticket sellers, as well as other employees, should be isolated from passengers by plastic dividers or other means. It may even be necessary to check a passenger’s temperature during intercity transportation and even periodically on more local public transport routes.

Well-connected and integrated public transport systems, along with walking, cycling and other types of micro-mobility, are much more sustainable. They also bring significant economic, health, social and environmental benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact on the use of alternative forms of non-motorised transport. In Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia, many people are using alternative forms of transport both out of necessity and by choice. Cycling is a good way to reduce pressure on public transport systems and maintain physical distancing. It is no less important to reduce traffic congestion, especially when traveling short distances.

This trend has been seen globally. Several municipalities around the world have been reclaiming their highways as spaces specifically for non-motorised transport – enabling people to travel by foot and bicycle while maintaining physical distancing – with examples from Milan to Prague to Bogota. This has drawn attention to the fact that, in many instances, our cities are not adapted to the needs of pedestrians, who ordinarily have little dedicated space – and that by giving over space to non-motorised road users, alternative forms of transport are more appealing and used in greater abundance.

Observations globally have also shown better air quality levels as a result of lockdown measures – highlighting just how much our daily transport and, especially, our use of private vehicles contributes to air pollution. Climate change is an emergency that is not going away. Many people have been commenting on the pleasure brought by clean air, traffic free streets, and quieter neighbourhoods as a result of lockdown measures, but if we want to keep these good things, sustainable public transport and promoting non-motorised transport needs to be prioritised by the government and included in the post-COVID development strategy.

The sooner we start, the faster we can reap the economic and health benefits of an integrated public transport system. The government, political commentators, healthcare professionals and economic experts all agree that the country will have to live with the virus for some time, and will therefore have to introduce and implement protocols in the field of transport. We need to ensure that this is done safely and sustainably by taking into account adequate analysis and timely action to ensure transport functions efficiently.