Public Transport Occupancy Data For Social Distancing

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This article explains the role of occupancy data in helping public transport users follow social distancing rules in public transport.

The long-term relevance of public transport

Before we jump into the discussion in the pandemic context, let’s first mention the long-term significance of public transport for the environment and society. The case for public transport has been emphasised for a very long time.

For instance, Robert Rhode found in 2000 that transport fuels make up 13.2% of the overall annual greenhouse gas emissions, mostly thanks to its CO2 emissions. By vehicle type, cars make up about 40% of the vehicles that emit greenhouse gases while trains make up about 4%.

Meanwhile, the Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness (CGGC) has made a simple conclusion a decade ago that using buses to move people is energy-efficient compared to cars due to the comparison of CO2 emissions per passenger: it seems that a bus has 6 times less CO2 emissions per passenger than a car.

Fast forward to the present, the younger generations are attempting to stop repeating the mistakes of older generations and are seeking to save the planet, starting with the historic Climate Strike to call for climate action. One of the demands from the young protesters is improved public transport infrastructure and policies.

“We hope this protest and these strikes leads to a cultural shift away from fossil fuels and unsustainable transportation, and towards investing in public transportation and investing in opportunities and access for local communities…

There’s a growing cultural awareness of the urgency and danger of this climate crisis. We can’t keep living the way we are with our current transportation sector.”

said Ethan Wright, a then 19-year-old university student in the US and a director of Zero Hour, who carpooled with his friends to the train station to attend the Climate Strike.

“You gotta walk the talk, bike the talk. I’ve done my best to bus, bike, and walk everywhere. Being a climate activist has made me a transit activist…

We must recognize how our cities are stacked against alternative modes of transportation, and how our land-use policy caters to and creates car-dependent sprawl. Policies need to change. We need to refuse to expand into the green belt. We need to build denser, with more transit and amenities, to create a more walkable city. This way, changing one’s method of transportation is more accessible for all.”

said Nina Tran, a then 18-year-old student in Canada and cofounder of the Environmental Community of Hamilton Students.

On top of its relevance in the European Green Deal and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as well as the climate action demands of the younger generations, public transport is here to stay due to its continuous value to several segments of society who are not only using public transport for sustainability reasons but also lack any other viable choice.

What the pandemic did to transport

From 2019 to 2020, the global carbon emissions fell, maybe due to the lockdowns. To mention a few, China had a 1.4% fall while the whole world had a cumulative fall of 6.3%. Spain had a much larger fall at 15.7%, followed by the US at 13.1%, India at 11.7% and Germany at 11.4%.

There was also, for example, a sharp fall in passenger numbers in London’s public transport during the early onset of the pandemic in March and April 2020. Towards September 2020, the numbers started rising but not as high as before.

Seeing that the Covid-19 pandemic is not going away anytime soon, the idea of taking public transport (or even going out to a public place) is still daunting for people who have adjusted to the social distancing norms. Obviously, many people worldwide have a fear of Covid-19 contamination in public transport since it is really difficult to follow the social distancing rules in full buses and trains.

Passengers, especially those in higher risk groups, need a way to avoid entering full vehicles. Therefore, it is more important than ever to provide information systems showing the level of potential infection risk based on occupancy data analysis. The crucial question to answer using occupancy data is this: When is the best time to use public transport on a particular day?

Helping passengers follow social distancing rules in public transport

In order to tackle the dilemma between using public transport to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the necessity of social distancing, occupancy data can be used to inform passengers about the current number of passengers onboard a particular public vehicle.

It can inform passengers about the congestion levels in trains and buses, so that they know if they should avoid using a certain route at a particular time when the congestion levels are high or go ahead when the congestion levels are low enough to allow for social distancing.

In 2016, a team of Indian researchers recommended collecting occupancy data using crowdsourced mobile app data since smartphones have inbuilt sensors which serve as good sources of a passenger’s geographic data and passengers can report how crowded a vehicle is.

As occupancy data is gathered over time and stored in a database, these data can be analysed to obtain occupancy patterns for different routes on different days. These patterns, along with machine learning algorithms, can then be used to predict occupancy levels for future commutes. In 2020, work is already being done to put this concept to the test.

Exhibit A, the Australian state of Victoria has started trialling the passenger counting sensors and predictive modelling technology on its public transport system to give passengers real-time occupancy data. Meanwhile, another Australian state, New South Wales, is already applying similar technology to show real-time seat availability on Sydney’s trains based on carriage weight data captured by in-built sensors.

A more advanced version of this can be found in Japan, where people flow technologies process, predict and visualise data of congestion levels in trains and train stations.

Occupancy data as a long-term solution

This Big Data application is easier said than done due to the complexities of the data source jungle, which include concerns about data privacy, data ownership, data laws, internet connection, people counter issues, resources, data availability and forecasting difficulties.

But regardless of the arguments put forth in the debate for or against occupancy data, it took a pandemic to make us realise the importance of occupancy data for public transport users among many other things.

Occupancy data is unmistakably important in the fight against Covid-19. But even if the pandemic ends tomorrow, occupancy data analysis will still matter in public transport since passengers still place a high value in convenience in their commute experience.

“For riders with wheelchairs, strollers or large luggage, it helps to know in advance if they’ll have enough space onboard for a comfortable trip or if they’d be better off waiting for the next ride. And even for riders taking the bus on their everyday commute, crowding information provides peace of mind. Improving the accessibility and experience of public transit always pays dividends and that will be true of crowding information when the pandemic is behind us.”

Stephen Miller, Transit’s communications lead, explained the value of crowding data to Mass Transit Magazine.


Who finds public transport important?

– People who care about climate change, especially the younger generations.
– People who don’t have a private vehicle.
– Organisations that are looking to encourage people to use public transport.

How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact transport?

Passenger numbers have dropped in 2020, mainly due to lockdown measures and the fear of contamination in public transport.

What is the role of occupancy data in public transport?

It informs passengers about the congestion levels in trains and buses, so that they know if they should avoid using public transport at a particular time when the congestion levels are high or go ahead when the congestion levels are low enough to allow for social distancing.