Understanding risk and the viral imagination on public transport


photograph of an illuminated street sign promoting vaccine uptake

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, life has changed in ways that many of us couldn’t have imagined. SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) is so small that it is invisible to most of us, but its spread has forced us to adapt how we live, work and travel. We have come to realise that public spaces are where we interact not only with other humans, but with viruses and bacteria too.

The pandemic has seen a huge drop in public transport use. This raises challenges for the sustainability of services that serve a diverse range of communities and users, and also signals worsening social isolation and inequality as a result of reduced mobility, and an increase in air pollution and green house gas emissions caused by an increase in private vehicle use. 

We are a group of researchers at the University of Southampton and the University of Newcastle who are interested in how we understand infection and how we can prevent it. This project, ‘Routes of infection, routes to safety: Creative mapping of human-viral behaviours on the bus to understand infection prevention practices’, was funded by UK Research and Innovation, Jan 2021 – Feb 2022. We looked at what risks there were of COVID-19 (and other pathogens) on buses, whether current control measures (enhanced cleaning, social distancing, mask wearing) were effective, and how we can enhance public understanding about how to travel safely and confidently on buses.

The team has a wealth of experience, across Geography, Microbiology, Planning and Art, and are working with a number of partners, including bus operators, bus passenger organisations and community groups. Through the course of the project we undertook ethnography, interviews and microbiome studies, and have been sharing our findings on this website via project reports, online workshops, video and visual materials.

The initial research phase of the project has been followed up by public engagement-led work funded by the Public Engagement with Research unit and the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC). The project has been generously supported by the Global Network for Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Prevention (Global NAMRIP), who provided a series of pump-priming funds that helped the formation of the research team and development of our socio-microbiological methodology.

If you’d like to be involved or have an enquiries, please get in touch.