COVID-19 and transport: actions and challenges in Latin America

The Sustainable Urban Mobility Platform promotes dialogue and experiences for the sector in confronting contingencies.

 Mexico City, June 15.- This pandemic has brought major challenges to the transport sector in all cities of the world. It is not just a matter of urgent and immediate action, but a potential long-term crisis that will lead to a stigmatisation of sustainable modes of mobility and funding risks.

With the purpose of generating a space for dialogue and exchange among officials and experts facing the challenge of COVID-19, the webinar "Actions in the transport sector in Latin America and the Caribbean" was held on March 24, organised by LEDSLAC in collaboration with the Sustainable Urban Mobility Platform of MobiliseYourCity/EUROCLIMA+, among other associations.

On March 11, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, with contagion currently concentrated in the Americas. Although transport plays an important role in the spread of the virus that causes this disease, with the appropriate measures this sector can help reduce the risk of contagion and in turn meet the demand for mobility, a basic element for the functioning of cities.

"Unity and collaboration are key to facing this great challenge, which is why this joint effort to share experiences on measures taken in various Latin American cities to prevent and control contagion, the challenges, difficulties and lessons learned to date", were highlighted in the  introduction by Carolina Chantrill of LEDS LAC.

In this regard, the webinar shared key information on how the authorities have generated their action plans, based on rigorous methodologies, contemplating the participation of several institutions, and always prioritising personal integrity and the infrastructure and sustainability of the transportation system.

Lessons learned from Shenzen 

It is vital to start by studying what was done by cities in China, the country of origin for the virus whose spread has had a global impact. Verena Flues, specialist in Sustainable Urban Mobility at German Cooperation for Sustainable Development (GIZ), presented the experience carried out by the operator Shenzen Bus Group, a company recognised worldwide for being the first to electrify its entire bus and taxi fleet.


The city of Shenzen is in southern China and has a population of 12.5 million. Due to its technology industry, it is an important economic and work centre with a lot of internal migration. Because of this, the region was quickly affected by the novel coronavirus, despite being more than a thousand kilometres away from Wuhan.

When the virus started to become a public health problem, the company took internal measures: mass acquisition of hygiene material for its 30,000 employees, compilation of movements, among others. As for its service, and contrary to what other cities did, it chose to maintain a balance between maintaining public transportation service while also discouraging its use. "People should not move more than necessary but they should be able to do so in order to reach their important destinations," Verena pointed out.

The Shenzen Bus Group also provided special services such as coordinating the evacuation of a cruise ship in the city's port with infected people from Wuhan, giving added value to its corporate responsibility.

Undoubtedly, the immediate reaction of the company helped transport play a beneficial role in controlling the epidemic, without ignoring the drastic measures that required a large system of human and financial resources.

"There will be significant economic losses for the public transportation companies, Sheng Bus is no exception. There is an important reflection on the role of the State to support the sector for it to survive and continue operations after this crisis," concluded Verena.

Experiences in Latin America


Lucila Capelli, Undersecretary of Sustainable Mobility for Buenos Aires, presented the Argentine city's plan during the first weeks of the spread and during the initial phase of the quarantine.

With three million inhabitants, Buenos Aires is located in a metropolitan area with a combined population of 15 million. The city receives three million trips. That is why the government worked on five areas:

  1.  Maintaining the supply of public transport.
  2. Discouraging demand.
  3. Discouraging saturation peaks.
  4. Promoting modal shifts in the citizenry.
  5. Restricting access in certain places. 

"It seems obvious to those who come from the transport sector, but these processes, which involve health and policy authorities, are not always taken into account. Our goal was to explain why it was very important to maintain the supply of public transport to ensure accessibility," the official said.

By means of coordination tables to maintain a strategic vision and with protocols for hygiene measures for employees and users, the city generated various action measures such as distancing between users, communication strategies, coordination of supply during peak hours, and flexible working hours, among others.

This generated results of up to 75% demand for public transport and an increase in the public bicycle system of 29% during the initial phase. In the quarantine period, a decrease in demand of up to 95% was achieved. "We try to maintain supply so that doctors, nurses and essential workers can get to their workplaces.

For his part, Rodrigo Díaz, Undersecretary of Planning, Policies and Regulation of the Secretariat of Mobility of Mexico City, presented the measures and challenges of the most populated city in Latin America.

The official explained that Mexican policy has been more about recommendations to the population than mandatory restrictions. This is due to the unequal conditions in Mexico, where 60% of the population relies on the informal sector.

In terms of mobility, we have sought to discourage travel by suspending work and non-essential activities, cancelling classes, mass events and closing public spaces such as parks, town squares and cinemas.

In public transport, the thorough cleaning of structured transport such as the metro, BRT, trolleybuses, public bicycle system and buses managed by the city government is carried out.

“Although demand has decreased, we are trying to exceed the supply, to offer as much as possible, even if this has very high operational costs. This is the only way to maintain adequate social distancing.”

Future challenges

The webinar is an example of collaboration and information sharing, a key action to address jointly during the remaining months of the pandemic. "This gives us an urgency to plan effective prevention and emergency care measures, given that mobility systems are at the heart of all this," said Maruxa Cardama, Secretary General of SLoCaT.

Long-term challenges were also recognised in this space. The expert in mobility felt that deep reflection was needed on the initiatives that would have an impact in favour of sustainable and low-carbon transport as a vector of human and sustainable development, and climate action.

“With this crisis as a backdrop, it seems to me that the sustainable transport community must and can capitalise on this nerve that has been touched to evolve our discourses, our advocacy initiatives, and also the interaction with other communities beyond our own, for the sake of more integrated approaches.”

To see the full video of the webinar, click on this link::


EUROCLIMA+ is a programme financed by the European Union to promote environmentally sustainable and climate-resilient development in 18 Latin American countries, particularly for the benefit of the most vulnerable populations. The Programme is implemented under the synergistic work of seven agencies: the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), the French Development Agency (AFD), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Expertise France (EF), International and Ibero-American Foundation for Administration and Public Policy (FIIAPP), the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), and UN Environment.

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