Post lockdown travel demand in South Africa – three plausible futures to prepare for


Public Transport Operators (including paratransit operators in the cities of the global south) have been severely impacted by COVID – 19 related lockdown measures that saw economic activity (and therefore travel demand) been reduced to variations on the definition of ‘’essential service workers’’. 

Anecdotal evidence put forward by formal bus and paratransit / minibus taxi operators in South Africa seems to suggest that Lockdown Travel Demand (Lockdown Low) represents more or less 10% of pre – lockdown demand (Pre- Lockdown High).

Against this (yet to be confirmed) backdrop Minibus Taxi Operators in South Africa are engaging government in, amongst others, loss of income discussions.

What will travel demand look like in a post – lockdown South Africa?

Three commonly used economic (recession) recovery models are the V – shape, the U – shape and the W -shape. 

In the context of this article we regard the V – shape as the Optimistic, the W – shape as the Pessimistic and the U – shape as the Realistic travel demand recovery scenario.

It then follows that 

V – shape economic recovery

  • a V – shape economic recovery (i.e. a rapid and steady recovery) should result in a similar rapid and steady recovery in Travel Demand; (the Optimistic Scenario). 

W – shape economic recovery

  • a W – shape economic recovery (i.e. a brief recovery followed by a slump/ possibly a new phase of lockdown and then a slower but more sustained period of recovery, should result in a similar (somewhat unsettling) recovery in Travel Demand patterns, (The Pessimistic Scenario). 

U – shape economic recovery

  • a U – shape economic recovery (i.e. an initial slow or protracted recovery followed by a period of steep recovery) should see Travel Demand remaining low or increasing to just above Lockdown Low level for a sustained period (3- 6 months/ maybe more), before demand starts increasing at a more rapid rate, as more economic sectors are activated/  regain momentum, with travel demand probably taking 12 – 18 months to get back to a reasonable level which in itself may be significantly lower than the March 2020 Pre – Lockdown High (The Realistic Scenario).  

It is important to note that these recovery scenarios treat cyclical spikes in travel demand patterns such as month ends and social grant paydays as constants.

The question then arises should we be basing our plans, (less than two weeks before the end of Lockdown), on the assumption that we’ll get back to where we were before (i.e. 26 March 2020 travel demand levels) in no time?

To answer this question all we need to do is read the signs;

A phased approach to lockdown relief

Governments around the world (including our government and governments in other African countries) are sending the signal that Lockdown Relief will be a phased process (this means that not all sectors of the economy will be ‘’switched on’’ at the same time, that not all schools kids and higher education students will return to class in one go, and that some strata of society may be required to refrain from or limit travel on public transport modes.

The impact of additional unemployment

Not all people who had jobs before Lockdown, may have jobs once lockdown measures have been lifted.  Many economists are predicting that an additional 1 million people may join the ranks of the unemployed in SA as a result of the 5- week lockdown period. The effect of governments ‘ stimulation package announced on 21 April 2020 may mitigate some of these forecasts, but it may be safe to assume that not all people who had jobs before lockdown will go back to traveling daily between home and work and that some may significantly reduce or change their travel patterns.

New ways of work

People who can work from home (and who were compelled to adapt to working from home during Lockdown) may in part or in full continue to work from home. This new way of work will further impact typical weekday travel demand patterns.

New regulatory requirements

Government may, as part of its continued measures aimed at containing the person- to- person transmission rate, require a continuation of lower densities on all public transport modes. This will impact the load factor and therefore the cost recovery ability of the operator. 

Modal shift

Back to the convenience of the private car?  A percentage of former captive market public transport users may shift to ride – sharing, car- pooling and other private car -based options as personal health and safety considerations coupled with lower frequency of travel demand becomes part of the new normal.      

What is Possible – what is Plausible and what is Probable? 

Scenarios are meant to provide people who need to plan for the future with alternative futures (i.e. plausible futures) so that they can test the assumptions on which they are basing their plans and consider the validity of their plans.

The V, W & U shape travel demand recovery patterns or futures outlined here, represent three plausible post -Lockdown futures for public transport operators. 

We however further focus the attention on some of the amber lights that are already flashing, pointing us to the probable nature of travel demand post- Lockdown.

The purpose of this article is to help public transport operators question their assumptions about the future (and in particular future travel demand) and to help them prepare for a future (and a new reality) that may be very different to the immediate past we come from. 



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On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan City, China. ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2’ (SARS-CoV-2) was confirmed as the causative agent of what we now know as ‘Coronavirus Disease 2019’ (COVID-19). Since then, the virus has spread to more than 100 countries, including South Africa. Emergency Hotline: 0800 029 999 WhatsApp Support Line: 0600-123456