The future of public transport and mobility: back to normal, or time for a new hierarchy?

Almost every type of transport, from airplane to ride-hailing, has seen a dramatic fall in usage as lockdowns have upended daily life. However, traffic levels soared as restrictions eased because people stayed away from public transport. What does the future hold for mass transit?

Pre-coronavirus, efforts were being made to reduce congestion, particularly that caused by cars, and focus more on more-sustainable transport. Has all that work been undone? Indeed, as Jay Onda, Startup Investments at Orange Silicon Valley, put it during a recent webinar, “mobility and transit hit the pandemic speed bump.”

A new mobility hierarchy

Onda was speaking as part of Next Normal: Transportation and Mobility, with guests Samantha Huang, a Principal at BMW i Ventures, and Danielle J. Harris, Director of Mobility Innovation at Elemental Excelerator, an accelerator for clean-tech, non-profit startups.

Huang noted that with people slowly heading back to work under the cloud of COVID-19, “we’re seeing a hierarchy of mobility emerging, based around mobility that you can be socially distanced. So, of course, at the top of the hierarchy, you’ll have cars because you don’t have to be in the car with anyone else that you don’t typically live with. Then you’ll have bikes and scooters, and ridesharing at the lower end. And then public transportation is going to be last in the hierarchy.”

This was, in part, evidenced by a boom in used car sales as the public “are moving towards more personal ownership, but because consumer confidence is at an all-time low, people are going to purchase the cheaper option – a used car.” This trend is mirrored in a Boston Consulting Group study: it said 60% of Chinese respondents were more likely to buy a car after lockdown than they were before the crisis, with interest high even in lower-income groups.

The other reason for this pattern was the changing role of the car, according to Harris, who said that “the car today, in the face of COVID, has become more than a means of transportation, but kind of a sanctuary or refuge. People feel most safe there with their loved ones, but also people are stuck at home with their loved ones and perhaps want some alone time.”

At first glance, this return to the car appears to be something of a regression. However, the BCG study indicates that while in the short-term cars may be a winner, they will have to share the podium with other forms of individual transportation, namely bikes and e-scooters. In the medium term, BCG said that respondents suggested “that over time, as the crisis fades, their safety concerns won’t be nearly as acute, and their use of shared mobility and public transit will increase.”

Whether that becomes a reality depends on two elements, said Harris. Firstly, in light of reduced public transportation services, “how do we provide more frequent services so that we can reduce crowding, as well as how can we help transit users have a really informed ride? So, letting folks know that maybe you shouldn’t travel right now because the train’s full or the platform’s really busy.” Secondly, providers need to focus on “cleaning and enhancing the amount of trust in our transit service.”

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Unlocking “a whole other level of efficiency”

For the latter, efforts have already started in many cities across the world. A McKinsey article stated that the measures include “more frequent cleaning and disinfecting of trains, trams, buses and stations; requiring passengers and employees to wear face coverings; applying stickers, markers, shields and barriers to aid in physical distancing; running public conveyances more frequently; limiting the number of passengers; and increasing access to bicycle sharing.”

In that sense, many of the steps taken mirror those being deployed in retail and hospitality to encourage customers to return. Yet while a shop or bar is fixed and can be easily monitored, with regular cleans scheduled, the very nature of public transit services makes that harder to achieve. Not only are the volumes of customers much larger, but being sure a bus on route A has received the same deep clean that one on route B has can be challenging, particularly when they are not from the same depot.

Then there is the challenge of answering Harris’s first point on managing fleets and communicating with passengers accurately and quickly. It requires, in her words, “a whole other level of efficiency.”

It could be that there are similar answers to both – investing in technology, specifically Internet of Things sensors and data analytics platforms, which can manage and track public mobility fleets, right down to the level of bicycle-sharing schemes.

By monitoring both user demand and vehicle usage, transit authorities could deploy fleets and request cleans in real-time, rather than attempting to stick to pre-determined schedules that could be disrupted by congestion or roadworks. That same data could also be shared with passengers to alert them to potential crowding at various points where social distancing may not be possible, and suggest alternatives (whether another mode of transport, a different route or a later service).

Talk of IoT and remote control of vehicle fleets often turns to autonomous vehicles. In an urban environment, driverless taxis, in particular, have a certain appeal, offering a potential compromise between providing a higher level of citizen safety with reducing the number of individual vehicles in city centers. But many analysts suggest that this is still quite some way off.

A return to normality, or something more?

Whether we see autonomous vehicles in our cities soon or not, the common consensus is that some form of innovation is required. Where that comes from, however, is a matter of debate. One option would be joint public and private partnerships to bring the latest technology to bear, but Huang was unconvinced.

“You’re going to definitely see less public-private partnerships just because innovation offices right now don’t have the money,” she warns. “Innovation offices at cities are often the first ones to get their funding cut because when you have people dying and being sick, innovation takes the last stand in the variety of things you have to provide in your civic community.”

What, then, does the future of public transport and mobility hold? An article on the University of Manchester’s Policy@Manchester blog notes that trying to predict what will happen to urban transport post-COVID remains a challenge without a vaccine.

However, for the likes of Huang and Harris, there is an opportunity to reset, rather than simply wait to return to normal. For the former, while “it’s too early to predict… the hope is that people will start using their bikes more, start using micro-mobility solutions, and once they become more experienced and this is a normalized part of their daily commute, those types of more sustainable mobility options will preserve even post-COVID lockdowns.”

Or, as Harris asked on the webinar, “Do we want to get back to normal or do we want to be visionary?”

Will homeworking have a long-term impact on the development of autonomous vehicles, micro-mobility and ridesharing? Listen to the Orange Silicon Valley webinar: Next Normal: Transportation and Mobility.