How to resume business post-COVID and not screw up: mobility in the age of social distancing

News / Editorial

The whole world had its eyes set on China reopening its economy. The impact on transportation, in the aftermath of the pandemic, was critical: Chinese left mass transit in droves and opted for individual mobility. There is a way to solve this conundrum if companies, schools, and employers turn to their communities.

In China, two-wheeled vehicles and private cars are back in fashion; transit is down by more than half, even after the economy reopened; private car usage more than doubled. Although it’s perfectly understandable to protect oneself by choosing to commute alone, it will have major impacts on road congestion, pollution, and parking.

Before everyone gets vaccinated, which could take up to 24 months, the economic reboot means getting around will be massively disrupted and organizations need to be prepared. Our mobility habits — heck, all habits! — will be hit 3 times:

  1. The health crisis. For safety reasons, we’ll need to get around carefully, with social distancing and sanitary measures at the forefront.
  2. The economic crisis. As a recession is looming, our mobility choices will be different than during growth times.
  3. The public finance crisis. Governing bodies won’t have enough money to support all public means of transportation along with many other programs.

The health crisis will prompt populations back to their cars or on their bikes, and will massively reduce the transit ridership whatever the mode may be. The bad news is, we will see a critical rise in road congestion, air pollution, and parking demand (mostly at work).

The economic and public finance crises will then put pressure on transit networks and drive both funding and supply down, hence creating an even greater modal shift towards bikes and cars.

Transport authorities alone will have a hard time achieving a successful economic recovery. It is therefore critical that folks in charge of mobility, in each organization, step up and rise to the challenge of building and deploying their own mobility portfolio to meet the needs of staff, students, and professionals.

The shutdown and the upturn

An economic upturn will happen in weighted phases in order to control the outbreaks. It’s a matter of when and how it will reopen. Social distancing could last until 2022 and, it alone, won’t be enough. A set of measures enforced by governing bodies will be vital.

Being in contact with a spouse, a kid or a parent is inevitable, but being in contact with hundreds of people on the subway is. Efforts to limit contact with the masses will pay off.

Companies will put in place several health measures to control the spread of the virus until a vaccine is made available.

Working from home makes sense during a shutdown, but can’t be the only fix looking forward. We’ll see more Zoom meetings from now on, but there are a whole lot of human activities that just can’t be Zoomed; consider for a moment schools, hospitals, labs, shops, plants, and the food industry. Current mobility solutions will have to resume (with limitations in mind) or new solutions will need to be implemented.

Public health and mobility in the age of social distancing

The obvious impact of the crisis on transportation will lead to the comeback of individual mobility [article from La Reppublica — IT]. Two-wheeled vehicles and cars are on steep demand, despite the well-known downsides (congestion, pollution, and high parking demand amongst others). The planet takes a breather and our yearly targets of GHG emissions will be met, but I’m afraid the next few years will hurt.

An immediate consequence of this accelerated modal shift is counterintuitive: we foresee parking scarcity for cars, and for bikes and scooters alike. For land use reasons, we will see a higher demand for parking and employers will inherit the burden of managing this unwanted mess.

A typical parking lot can, in fact, accommodate twice the amount of commuters per spot (up to 4 during non-COVID times). Even according to the above mentioned modal shifts, the car fleet of a typical workforce possesses the empty seats to absorb the excess in demand.

The long recovery of the public transit

Montreal transit authorities are losing 75M CAD a month amid the crisis, same scenario in Vancouver. APTA members already collected 25B USD in emergency financial aid. The question is: how much more capital will be needed to make it in the long haul? If public transit’s funding is drastically impacted, authorities will have to scale down on services.

Revenues and ridership will decrease whilst costs will increase. Expensive health measures could include new procedures such as cleaning up subway wagons each day and distributing face masks to each transit user. Ridership won’t plummet only because of other modes of transportation but because of teleworking too.

We are entering a very long and complicated stretch during which the mobility pie chart will be altered. Specialists speculate and try to anticipate how our cities will be planned and roads will be shared. The “new mobilities”, such as electric scooters, autonomous vehicles, and on-demand transport will be shaken. There is one absolute certainty however: it’s not just Autonomous, Connected, Electric, and Shared anymore, it also has to be Sanitary.

On density, urban planning, and climate change

Urban density is usually a blessing. It turned into a nightmare during this pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and nothing like our generation has — and will ever again — come across. “Business as usual” may not return for several years and everything that seemed obvious a couple months ago, is now turned upside down. Fuming government officials will punch the table, swearing: “Never again!”

Questions remain on the way our cities are planned. Do we need more bike lanes immediately? Yes. Afraid of catching the flu on the subway? Maybe it’s time to share a carpool ride with a colleague. Too many drivers ask for a parking spot? Time to revisit those privileges, usually based on seniority, and potentially focus on miles-driven to and from work instead.

What’s more, will we favor public health over user individual data privacy, the same as we favor virus spread mitigation over pollution or economic restoration over congestion?

Time and time again, carpool has proven to be unwaveringly reliable during crises — think WWII, the oil crisis, and every major recession. All the good excuses why one would avoid carpool at all costs are now a thing of the past.

At the end of the day, if one wants to resume their activities with respect to health, security, and the environmental and economic constraints we are currently facing, one has to address the changed mobility landscape looming before us.

Carpooling succeeds during crises

Considering the significant number of commuters that will shift their mode of transportation, private cars remain the only viable solution, given it has a large enough capacity to meet the heightened demand.

Not to forget, absorbing the transit riders in privately-owned vehicles is how we can practice social distancing in a way that fits our climate change targets.

Time and time again, carpool has proven to be unwaveringly reliable during crises — think WWII, the oil crisis, and every major recession. All the good excuses why one would avoid carpool at all costs are now a thing of the past. “It’s sooo pre-covid, like, to ride with a stranger or drive a stranger to work; it’s so expensive compared with public transit” we heard. Perhaps post-covid should remind everyone that if they thought it used to be impossible to park at work, it’ll be worst from now on; that if all drive on their own to work, rush hour congestion will be exponential; that riding with a colleague is not riding with a stranger, it’s far more secure; that employers will amend their corporate policy to leverage their parkings, whether it means increasing their permit rates or limiting access based on new criteria.

To restart the economy with respect to social distancing measures, a global return towards individual means of transportation is inevitable. We will see a spike in demand for parking at work, that’s indubitable. It is therefore paramount that mobility managers, in each organization, address this unavoidable and rising parking demand by building and deploying a corporate and sanitary carpool network.

-Originally posted on Medium by Marc-Antoine Ducas