Rush at stops defeats social distancing in Delhi buses

Rush at stops defeats social distancing in Delhi buses

How long do people wait at a stop for a bus in the Capital? Five minutes? Fifteen minutes? Half an hour?

For 37-year-old Bhupinder Chaudhary, waiting for bus 544 or 540 at the AIIMS bus stop on one afternoon, the answer was 2 hours, 10 minutes, and counting. Milling around were 35-40 people like him, waiting as bus after bus filled to the reduced Covid capacity of 20 passengers drove by.

Social distancing collapsed every now and then as Chaudhary and others would rush in a horde, jostling to get to the door first only to be turned away. For many, masks came off as patience wore thin.

“Three buses that would have taken me to Uday Park have already gone. They were full as per the new seating rule and the driver doesn’t stop the bus. I thought I should have my packed lunch but dropped the idea because if an empty bus comes while I am eating, these two hours would have gone to waste,” said Chaudhary, a daily wage earner who does glass fittings as a job.

The scene at Delhi’s bus stops underscores a new worry for the Capital’s fight against Covid-19 and illustrates a transportation crisis. Buses are now the lone mass transit option available for a city of nearly 20 million people. The consequence is long waiting times at bus stops, where people are hardly able to keep the suggested six feet distance from one another, and the crowding makes screening of symptomatic people virtually impossible.

Officials are urging that services be resumed in the Delhi Metro, where ridership will also need to be reduced in order to allow for social distancing, raising the possibility of crowding at and outside stations — a factor that experts now say will need to be addressed on priority.

“To prevent crowding inside public transport vehicles isn’t sufficient. The capacity of public transport must be expanded to prevent crowding at bus stops and train stations,” said Shreya Gadepalli, who leads the South Asia Programme of the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP).

Since July, economic activity has picked up as offices and factories reopen after two-and-a-half months of lockdown that eroded earnings at an unprecedented scale. Compared to June 30, visits to office districts has increased considerably. According to Google Mobility Reports, visits to workplaces on June 30 (a Tuesday) was down by 48% compared to pre-pandemic levels. On August 18 (also a Tuesday), the number rose by 8 percentage point.

Gadepalli said scientists now have evidence the virus is airborne, which suggests that the universal use of masks rather than physical distancing might be the most important solution to contain the spread of the virus. “Studies have not found public transport as Covid-19 hotspots. Singapore, Japan, and many European countries have relaxed physical distancing rules within public transport but mandate the use of masks and instruct passengers to not speak to stop droplets from going airborne,” she said.

But adhering to rules becomes a challenge when people spend frustrating hours waiting for transport. Commuters HT spoke to during office hours at AIIMS, ITO, Sarai Kale Khan and Anand Vihar – some of the city’s main bus stops that now see a daily footfall of around 100,000 – said their wait times have now gone up to as high as three hours, from roughly 45 minutes before the pandemic.

“Some people feel the virus has gone and do not wear masks or keep a distance. The risk of contracting the virus seems very high at bus stops because they are always crowded. I worry if anyone is infected,” said Shahdaab Ali, an undergraduate student at Ram Lal Anand College in South campus, who said he avoids travelling in buses during peak hours now.

Others HT spoke to said it is an economic compulsion that drives them. “The government has allowed all offices to open, but there is no transportation. People like us, who earn Rs 10,000-Rs 14,000 per month and have four children, how are we supposed to commute?” said Ravinder Kumar, who arrived at Anand Vihar with his son from his village in Uttar Pradesh.

Delhi at present has around 6,100 buses from the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and those operated by private companies under the Cluster Bus system. Previously, these would carry 35-60 people but are now required to take in no more than 20 in order to prevent transmission of the coronavirus on board.

The Covid-19 normal has also forced the Delhi government to deploy civil defence volunteers to manage crowds and carry out thermal screenings to identify people with symptoms.

“Using these guns on every passenger boarding a bus consumes so much time that there will be stampedes and accidents,” said Ashok Kumar, a volunteer at an Anand Vihar bus stop.

Another volunteer said crowd management collapses as people break into a sprint to claim the few seats that are available. “Drivers stop the bus, not at the designated spot but a few metres away. As a result, only a few passengers who manage to run the fastest are able to board buses. The drivers, in any case, allow only those many people to board who get down from it,” said Pawan Singh at ITO bus stop.

While no cluster or DTC buses were seen carrying more than 20-22 passengers, the rule of buses running at 50% capacity was being openly flouted by privately run minibuses that operate across the city, especially in border districts.

When HT visited Anand Vihar, most of the minibuses that are popular in these areas were packed and few of the commuters were seen wearing masks.

“The minibuses are operated privately. Since DTC and cluster buses are not running to their full capacity, a lot of private buses are out on the roads making brisk business while undermining all preventive measures. We will intensify our drive to prosecute and impound private buses that are not following social distancing norms,” said KK Dahiya, special commissioner (operations), in Delhi’s transport department.

Transport minister Kailash Gahlot said with the Delhi Metro not operating, demand for buses in Delhi has gone up manifolds. “The Delhi Metro used to carry around 2.5 million passengers every day. Even if we assume the majority of them are now using their private vehicles or cabs to work, that still leaves lakhs of people who are falling back on our buses,” said Gahlot.

Dr Lalit Kant, former head, epidemiology, ICMR, said the Delhi Metro, once it opens, may also face similar crowding issues.

“Only around 300 people will be able to board at a time. So, crowd management at the stations will be very important. Anyone who is found wearing masks the wrong way should not be allowed to enter the metro premises and the same should be practised even at the bus stops. It is to be seen how social distancing will be managed inside the metro. Also, the DMRC should ensure common touchpoints like handles inside trains are frequently sanitised. It will be easier said than done though,” he said