Mohamed Mezghani, secretary-general of UITP (International Association of Public Transport) at ‘MENA Transport Congress and Exhibition’ in Dubai on Sunday Image Credit: Angel Tesorero/Gulf News

Dubai: From sterilisation to contactless ticketing, the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped public transport globally while remaining safe, a top official told Gulf News on the sidelines of the ‘MENA Transport Congress and Exhibition’ in Dubai on Sunday.

Speaking exclusively to Gulf News, Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general of Belgium-based UITP (International Association of Public Transport), said: “The first thing we learned [from the pandemic] is that we need to have resilient mobility that can address the pandemic or any other crises smoothly. We have learned how to effectively disinfect public transport and operate it in such a way that people feel safe using public transport.”

He added: “Second, the pandemic has accelerated digitisation and use of technology in urban mobility. Cities have implemented, for example, contactless ticketing, and we have seen rapid growth in electric mobility such as electric buses. We have also realised that decarbonisation is a priority for urban mobility.”

The ‘4th MENA Transport Congress and Exhibition’ is jointly organised by UITP and Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). Running Sunday to Tuesday at Dubai World Trade Centre, the transport congress is discussing the role of public transport and how the sector will look like in a post-pandemic world.

Addressing public apprehension

Mezghani acknowledged some people are still afraid to use public transport, however he added that “if we look at scientific studies, there is no proven risk of using public transport when people are wearing face masks. Commuters – especially in the cities – take public transport on short trips, and every time the doors open, fresh air comes in”.

He also pointed out that in most cities monitored by UITP, public transport ridership has gone up to 80 per cent on week days; and almost 100 per cent on weekends.

“But we [transport officials and experts] really need to address public apprehension and work on the psychology of people to make them feel safer in using public transportation. We need to communicate more and explain better to people that they are actually safe using public transport.”

Mobility solutions

Moving forward, Mezghani said: “We have also learned that we need to redefine public transport and offer door-to-door mobility and not just station-to-station.”

He explained: “This means we have to combine mass transport with on-demand mobility, such as scooters or bikes. We need to offer people the opportunity to move door-to-door or provide first- and last- mile solutions. Public transport is the backbone of mobility in cities but this should be complemented by on-demand and shared mobility solutions.”

Driverless vehicles

On a bright note, Mezghani said, major transportation projects – including promotion of autonomous vehicles – were not hampered by the pandemic. However, he added, the mass rollout of driverless vehicles will not come very soon. “Two or three year ago, we were thinking driverless cars will come very soon. But now we’ve realised it will take some time. The technology is there but the issue is legislation and the co-existence of driverless cars with regular vehicles. This interaction needed to be solved soon.”

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With regards to the future of mobility and autonomous vehicles, Mezghani underlined it is more important and strategic to focus on driverless mass transport. He said: “I don’t believe driverless cars will solve the issue of congestion because we will just have more cars on the road – although they will not be driven by people. What we actually need more is to have autonomous or driverless public transport as more people can be shuttled and not have driverless cars owned individually.”