Public transport suddenly in crisis

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Norwegian cities have invested billions in their public tranport systems in recent years, part of a major effort to get people out of their cars and on board a bus or tram. Then came Corona, lots of commuters started working from home, and mass transit is having trouble luring them back after the crisis eased.

Oslo has phased in lots of electric buses along with upgraded trams and metro service, but passengers haven’t flocked back in the same numbers after Corona disruptions. PHOTO: Alexander Eriksson / ZERO

Transport officials are now “seriously worried” about “a drastic downscaling of our public tranport system,” reports newspaper Aftenposten.

State broadcaster NRK was reporting just before the weekend that public transport service may be suspended on Sundays and after 8pm on other days of the week if passengers don’t start filling up seats again. “It’s dramatic,” the Viken County official in charge of transportation issues told NRK.

Such cuts loom unless the state comes up with more funding for local public transport around Norway and especially in and around the capital of Oslo. It’s the only Norwegian city with a bus, tram and metro systems that operate both above and below ground, and the latter especially has been greatly improved in recent years.

Now, with many Norwegians working from “hybrid” offices that include both heading into work a few days a week but also  working from home, passengers just haven’t returned to the mass transit system. Lots of capacity is running with empty seats, and that’s costly for the local governments and transport agencies operating them.

Crisis aid sought
Both the City of Oslo and the capital’s surrounding county of Viken are now seeking more crisis aid from the state. They received state compensation for keeping buses and tram running throughout the Corona crisis, when the public was urged not to use mass transit in order to limit the spread of infection. Nurses and many others who couldn’t work from home, however, needed to be able to get to work.

The crisis and restrictions have since eased, but far fewer Norwegians are using to public transport. Either they’re still working from home or walking, cycling and driving into work now. Part of the reason for that is believed to be Norway’s notoriously pricey ticketing, with monthly transit cards that no longer make ecnomic sense to those only commuting a few days a week. The price of a single ticket in Oslo is nearly NOK 40, around USD 5 at current exchange rates. That’s high by international standards, and enough to prompt many to simply to drive to work instead, according to new numbers from the state highway agency Statens vegvesen.

Ruter, the transit agency that runs much of the mass transit in the great Oslo area, was recently granted an extra NOK 135 million from the city to maintain its current route offer. It’s been expanded and improved recently, with a new and upgraded metro system, lots of electric buses and service running much more frequently and through the night on some routes.

Post-pandemic panic
Now, with a 20 percent reduction in passengers compared to pre-Corona days,  Oslo and Viken are asking the state government for much more crisis aid that would allow them to maintain current service until next summer. That may cost as much as NOK 500 million.

“We don’t have the economic muscle to handle the consequences of a pandemic alone,” Sirin Stav of the Greens Party, which has championed mass transit over the years, told newspaper Aftenposten. She and Ruter officials fear they’ll need to cut service and raise fares, both of which could result in even fewer passengers likely to object to higher prices for poorer service.

Ruter alone is facing a loss of NOK 1.2 billion next year alone. It’s working to meet calls for a new fare system that would be more flexible. Current prices for a monthly travel card are too high for those only commuting into work two or three days a week. Many are calling on Ruter to develop a new, more attractive system that would bring commuters back on board.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund