Public transport ridership has fallen to an 11-year low due to COVID-19, with average daily ridership for buses and trains falling by 34.5% to 5.04 million.
Bus and train ridership fall to an 11-year low amid COVID-19 pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic, public transport ridership fell last year as expected, a slide which broke a trend of consecutive rises in the previous 15 years. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said on Wednesday, 10 February 2021, that average daily ridership for buses and trains fell by 34.5% to 5.04 million - an 11-year low.

Trains bore the brunt of the pandemic-induced change, which forced many to work from home. MRT and LRT rides fell by 41% to 2.162 million a day. Bus ridership fell by 30% to 2.878 million a day. The taxi and private-hire car sector, which is considered a hybrid between public and private transport, also took a hit. Taxi rides dropped by 38% to 219,000 a day, while private-hire car trips fell by 29% to 297,000.

This is the first time that the LTA has released annual private-hire numbers along with taxis, and it shows what many observers have suspected for some time - that taxis have now taken a backseat to private-hire cars. The drop in public transport usage has raised questions about the financial sustainability of the network, which was designed with pre-pandemic usage in mind.

Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) transport economist Walter Theseira said it is unclear if usage levels will return to pre-pandemic levels, and whether efforts to persuade people to work more from home would ever take root permanently.

"It is really hard to evaluate this because previous efforts to get workplaces to adopt flexible work and other practices have failed to deliver significant changes. The question is whether this time is different," he said. "As more data come in from places like China, where the pandemic has been under control for many months, we may have a better sense of whether work-from-home can really be maintained after the authorities lift restrictions."

Either way, he said the financial implications for infrastructural investments and operational viability are vast. "You won't want to assume that there will be high work-from-home rates, only for the pattern to reverse quickly," he noted. "For commercial viability, I think not just in Singapore but also globally, this calls into question any licensing model which requires operators to cover costs and make profits based on fare revenues."

Prof. Theseira said a government contracting model, where the state assumes revenue risk (such as the bus operations here), might be more viable. "It's basically likely to be cheaper for government to provide that guarantee than for operators to absorb the risk and change the terms they bid on," he said. "Government can raise funds through taxes, operators will have to tap capital markets or beg the government for bailouts."

The head of SUSS' Urban Transport Management Masters programme also said that the whole premise of public transport subsidies may have to be tweaked. "It's an equity issue because it's only a minority of public transport users who really need high subsidies," he noted. "Moving to a system where fares go up, but income targeted subsidies also go up, may be fairer in the long run."