Physical distancing in public transport: an approach based on flow studies

The health crisis will require physical distancing to continue for some time. What will the impacts be on people’s daily lives, especially in public places such as metro stations, railway stations, seaports, airports, as well as museums and other meeting points?
Passenger flow studies can provide solutions. SYSTRA’s experts present a practical case for a subway station.

The current health crisis and government instructions, particularly the ones about lockdown, have substantially reduced travelling and the use of public transport. Although the health crisis is beginning to abate, distancing measures will remain in place to help prevent further propagation of the virus. For this reason, it is vital to continue to impose physical distancing for an indefinite period, as lockdown restrictions are eased, people begin to travel again and economic activity resumes.

What will the repercussions be on daily journeys using public transport? One aspect that must be analysed is the management of passenger flows through confined places such as metro stations. Another is the occupancy of carriages, which will be reduced in compliance with distancing rules. This question requires a system-wide approach, which must include the station’s ’holding’ capacity, as well as passenger flow.

Passenger flow studies can offer solutions to this problem. They can be used to check the safety and comfort of passengers in line with distancing measures. They can also underpin recommendations to ensure robust and optimised use of public space and passenger flows.

The video below produced by our staff shows two dynamic simulations (*) of a practical situation in a metro station:

  • an ordinary service situation in a station handling 2,000 passengers during the peak quarter of an hour;
  • a situation during the easing of restrictions after lockdown, recommending changes to respect various measures, and visualising the consequences of physical distancing compared to the normal situation.

(*) The blue dots depict passengers entering in the station (passengers embarking), the red dots represent passengers moving towards the exit (passengers alighting.)

Click here to watch the video

Physical distancing requires more space for passengers. Metro stations cannot to handle their usual peak period footfall. To guarantee the best service possible, we recommend several modifications to make best use of station space (coloured orange in the video). In our case study, these arrangements enable up to 70% of the usual peak period passengers to pass through, by respecting the following recommendations:

  • intuitive (nudge) floor markings, applying physical distancing in the passenger waiting and walking areas;
  • intermediate waiting zones supervised by staff or dynamic signage, where passengers wait to access stairs and automatic ticket controls, as well as on the station forecourt;
  • flow management coordinated with service at the station, such as switching off half of the automatic ticket control lines, staircases reserved respectively for passengers entering and leaving, use of dematerialised tickets and passes to minimise crowds around kiosks, vending machines etc.

The station in the model functions correctly during off-peak periods, showing no signs of congestion. For a station that is already saturated under normal circumstances, the 70% figure must be lowered (according to the same available space).

This preliminary approach does not integrate the physical distancing that will be required in metro carriages. That will reduce the payload of each unit(*) and so the capacity of the station might be further diminished. We could certainly build a more complex model to incorporate this. (*) The dynamic simulation supposes that all the passengers waiting on platforms can always board the train.

However, adjustments to service (the headway between trains), as well as control of station access, could alter these conditions, thereby changing waiting conditions in the public area (station forecourt). The number of passengers observed in a normal service situation depends on service on the metro, as well as the connections with other modes of transport. As a result, the overall level of service provided by the network is modified in a crisis situation. This inevitably affects the number of passengers in the station.

This simulation should therefore be part of an overall study of transport and physical distancing in all public spaces, which can be modelled using our tools.
Two major issues should be examined together: final footfall in the station, and ridership in metro carriages, to prevent the system from being overwhelmed.

The guidelines for dealing with these issues call for more general recommendations:

  • continue to encourage working from home, or at least adjust the times of certain activities to limit the number of passengers on trains and in stations at peak periods;
  • close certain stations to increase commercial speed. Trains can run more frequently using the same resources (numbers of trains and drivers). Invite passengers who need to go short distances to use other (active) modes;
  • encourage the use of other transport modes (walking, cycling, scooters and electric scooters, taxis, ride sharing);
  • develop tools and applications (such as MaaS, Mobility as a Service) to send quality information instantaneously to travellers, such as:
    • the number of passengers on a transport mode, thereby redirecting passengers to alternative modes, to avoid possible congestion and wasted time,
    • choosing a seat in a metro carriage (also on a bus or light rail car), using a reservation system linked to a quota, to limit the number of passengers on public transport.

In every case, the rules for physical distancing in the transport systems of great metropolises will inevitably reduce the number of passengers that can be carried.

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