The bus travel industry has been one of the worst-hit amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant countrywide lockdown. The sector came to an absolute standstill with zero bus travel during the lockdown.
With no source of income, several migrants workers and daily wagers undertook long journeys back home in the sweltering heat, on foot, as there were no buses or any other mode of public transport.
With COVID-19 not going away anytime soon and no clarity on when a vaccine will be available, the government has been forced to open up the country in a phased manner in a bid to revive an already battered economy, which only sank deeper during the lockdown.
During a video conference with chief ministers last month to discuss the opening up, PM Modi had said, “We’ll have to learn to live with corona(virus).” Hence, June 8 marked the beginning of Unlock 1, the first phase of easing of restrictions.
As we learn to live with the virus, with social distancing and sanitisation at regular intervals, becoming the new norm, travel is also resuming slowly.
And as bus travel starts again, YourStory caught up with redBus CEO Prakash Sangam to understand what travelling in buses will feel like in a post-COVID-19 world, the measures being taken to ensure safety and what demand for bus travel is looking like. Online bus ticketing platform redBus has a 20 percent market share of private and public bus travel put together.
“As with most of the sectors, the whole bus travel ecosystem will also realign itself to the new normal,” says Prakash, adding that buses are “generally much safer than other modes of inter-city public transport”.
Edited excerpts from the interaction below.
YourStory (YS): Intercity bus travel is slowly resuming. Give us a sense of the routes that have opened up and the ones that are still closed.
Prakash Sangam (PS): Intra-state bus travel has already started in many states with Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, and Assam opening up fully for intra-state bus travel. Others like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are yet to do so.
Inter-state bus travel is opening up slowly with some states coming to a mutual agreement to open up their borders for bus travel. Inter-state travel has commenced between West Bengal and its neighbouring states of Orissa and Bihar; Gujarat and Rajasthan; Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab and UP and Delhi.
Interstate travel is yet to open up between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh despite the highest demand for travel between those two states, and between Karnataka and any of its neighbouring states.
YS: COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. What kind of measures is redBus taking to ensure the safety of passengers?
PS: At redBus, we have launched Safety+, a self-certification for our partner bus operators who meet the highest standards of excellence in safety and sanitisation. Our ticketing platform indicates bus operators with this self-certification, with a Safety+ tag next to the bus listing, enabling passengers to opt for such operators or buses.
While Safety+ ensures that our partner bus operators will enforce a slew of strict safety measures to keep the passengers safe, we have also listed out a set of passenger guidelines encouraging our customers to travel responsibly for a safe journey.
Measures taken by bus operators under Safety+ include —
• Deep cleaning and sanitisation of buses after every trip
• Access to hand sanitisers in all buses
• Mandatory masks for drivers and their helpers
• Thermal scanning of all drivers and their helpers before every trip
• Ensuring that all passengers carry and wear personal safety masks
• Thermal scanning of all the passengers
• No linens and blankets to be provided as a precaution
• Full traceability of all customers guaranteed by making phone numbers mandatory for all booking channels.
• 100 percent compliance with all government issued guidelines, related to intercity bus travel
YS: What kind of social distancing measures are you putting in place inside the buses?
PS: To follow social distancing norms, our booking software now supports social distancing in static and dynamic mode.
In static mode, specified bus seats are blocked and cannot be reserved. In dynamic mode, no seat is pre-blocked allowing families to book next to one another. However, the seat adjacent to a single passenger gets blocked automatically, ensuring social distancing.
YS: Could you paint a picture of what travelling on buses will be like in a post-COVID-19 world?
PS: As inter-city bus services resume gradually, the opportunity to travel comes as a huge relief to millions of people across the country.
However, there will be a significant difference in the way we look at bus travel going forward.
As we know now, COVID-19 is here to stay and it is up to all of us to keep it at bay by strictly adhering to and following all the precautions and guidelines on safety. While bus operators will have to undertake several measures on safety — with a set of processes to be followed, before, during and after each journey — the cooperation of passengers is also required to ensure that bus travel is safe.
Like most other sectors, the whole bus travel ecosystem will also realign itself to the new normal. Masks and hand sanitisers will become common and you’ll see social distancing protocols being implemented not just within buses but at the boarding points and rest stops too.
There’ll be a greater emphasis on reducing the number of touchpoints during the journey, which might lead to more online bookings.
Bus travel is generally much safer than other modes of inter-city public transport. A bus traveller is generally exposed to only about two dozen people within the bus or even fewer. Also, buses greatly reduce the first and last-mile distances for passengers as boarding and dropping points can be closer to their homes, further enhancing safety. It is also easier to sanitise buses after each trip and the online booking of bus tickets aids in hassle-free travel and reduces the number of touch-points.
With all the safety measures being put into place by bus operators, online platforms, and passengers themselves, bus travel can be made into a safe experience for everyone.
YS: People are obviously going to be wary of travelling by public transport for a while. When do you see demand picking up again?
PS: There is an understandable and justified concern among people as public transport gradually starts to resume. However, redBus continued to drive a fair amount of traffic during the nationwide lockdown as travellers constantly checked up on their bus travel options.
In a survey we conducted earlier among our customers, around 59 percent had indicated that they were planning an outstation trip within one month of travel restrictions being lifted.
To cater to this pent-up demand for bus travel during the lockdown and in order to keep the travellers adequately informed, we launched pre-registration feature on our platform, which keeps travellers notified as and when bus travel resumes on their desired routes. As of June 12, more than six lakh travellers had already availed the pre-registration feature.
After the pent-up demand for bus travel caused by the lockdown subsides, further travel demand would depend on two factors. Firstly, the trajectory of the virus spread and associated with it the economic activity, and secondly, how safe and secure travellers felt when they took their maiden bus journey during this time.
We would be doing all that we can along with our partners to provide a deep sense of safety and security to our travellers. Beyond this, it is very difficult to estimate the exact quantum of demand going forward.
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta