With everything going on today, public transport has been hit hardest. In fact, many of the major transport authorities around the world have reported up to a 95% reduction in users which not only shows the magnitude of the problem we face today but puts the future of these businesses and services in uncertainty.
From a commuter standpoint, there is also the uncertainty of what will happen to the rush hour and the way we travel to work in city centres. In a post lockdown world, we could see the end of the nine-to-five as we know it.
To dive into the future of public transport and commuting in urban ecosystems, I speak with Scott Shepard, Chief Business Officer of Iomob Technology Services, an open mobility-as-a-service platform for rail, cities and their transit agencies which enables transport providers to offer its citizens world-class connected mobility services.
Something that will need to be addressed immediately is, of course, social distancing. As many commuters in cities know, this is an extremely difficult task to overcome, with many networks crowded with people during the rush hour.
“Public Transport networks will recover slowly and incrementally for certain,” assures Shepard. “To ensure the most appropriate return to normalcy, public transport associations will need to arrange the physical and digital spaces at platforms and seating and standing in rail cars and busses to enable social distancing.”
By doing so, this will give passengers the assurance that their public health is being protected, and enable networks to increase their services and usage. Although, there will still be major issues with managing the sheer number of commuters in condensed rush hours.
To overcome this, there will have to be some changes to the usual nine-to-five lifestyle, in order to avoid a spike in riders at certain points in the day. One way to overcome this is for businesses to spread out their employees’ work hours, making sure that there is a more relaxed number of people travelling at the same time of day.
“The typical peak rush hour period post Covid-19 will instead be dispersed into multiple peaks and valleys throughout the day,” says Shepard. “This will be due to the fluid nature of commuting at one point in time to and from the workplace, and the higher utilisation of teleworking.”By creating more flexible work schedules, along with a more virtual presence through the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, companies can have a direct impact on peak congestion and footfall in cities.
Once the world returns back to some form of normality, contamination issues will be a key factor in fewer people using public transport, due to growing concerns with germs and viruses.
Initially, it will see a staggered restart to people using public transport. Due to this, Shepard believes that it will take some time until we see a sharp rise in ridership.
“Contamination issues will be a key factor, at least at first, in encouraging passengers back into using public transport. While there are physical interventions that can adequately protect public health, there has to be a sense of normalcy in the functioning of our urban infrastructure and systems first before we see a dramatic rise in ridership.”
Until this point, he believes that many residents will either choose to walk, cycle, or take their own car. This is a major blow to mobility services and new companies in the shared transport space, which have risen in popularity over the last few years.
Due to this, the next step is for transport associations to demonstrate the effective and economic way to move via mobility services and public transport. Otherwise, micro-mobility services such as bike and scooter sharing may suffer the same fate.
“Mobility services such as bike-sharing have been impacted by contamination issues, and most service providers have taken measures to disinfect units to ensure general cleanliness,” says Shepard.
“Scooter sharing has dropped off noticeably during the Covid-19 crisis, due to the failure of unit economics on the part of a few notable American providers. However, European scooter sharing providers are beginning to re-enter markets and slowly restart services, and with that comes the necessity for frequent sanitization of units to entice users back to their service.”
People are trying to figure out what to do to stay active whilst on lockdown. For many, including myself, this has presented two options: running or cycling. This will continue to be the case once lockdown is lifted, as people will feel more comfortable ignoring busy public transport services and using their own bikes.
In addition, it also seems as if there has been a rise in electric bikes, which has helped bridge the gap between a normal bike and a car. People can now go further more comfortably. “Cycling and e-bike ownership has seen a huge expansion during the Covid-19 crisis, for many reasons,” adds Shepard. “This includes such things as maintaining social distancing, providing a healthy alternative to single-car ownership and availability and accessibility during the crisis and lockdown.”
In certain cases, especially in Europe, we have seen cities shift their focus over to active transport, catering for this demand. This has seen more car-free areas in city centres and pop-up bike lanes to promote fitness.
But this all comes down to how cities can promote themselves. Now, more than ever, they have to manage how they run their transport networks, alongside active transport, to cater to a wider audience of commuters.
“The biggest challenge once this is finally over is to promote the primacy of public transport as the backbone of urban mobility,” Shepard continues. “Secondly, active transportation will need to be given greater prominence in future urban infrastructure investments.”
“Thirdly, single-car usage will need to be discouraged to ensure that we don’t promote unsustainable modes of mobility in the future.”