The outbreak of Covid-19 has had a significant impact on urban mobility. Based on a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, the lockdown measures put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19 significantly reduced passenger transport demand across many of the world’s major cities. As governments issued social distancing measures, local authorities advised residents against taking public transport, which resulted in a significant drop in passenger numbers by the end of March 2020. Since then, cities around the world have started to ease lockdown restrictions, with authorities creating dedicated bike lanes and walkways so residents can practice physical distancing while being able to commute in their locality. According to the World Bank, nearly 300 cities and regions have implemented people-friendly streets initiatives that allow residents to bike and walk within their city. In Europe, for example, almost 2,400 kilometres of cycling infrastructure has been announced by various levels of governments as of August 5, 2020. In the coming years, people will need to adapt to physical distancing, and municipal authorities will likely expand on recent measures to develop biking and walking infrastructure as a way to promote more liveable, sustainable, and accessible cities. As a result, urban mobility will likely see an uptake in shared micro-mobility with residents selectively choosing when to take public transportation. For cities to manage these upcoming changes, authorities will need to leverage technology to enable them to implement three essential solutions to help increase safety and sustainability of micro-mobility services, deploy efficient on-demand mass transit and optimise urban mobility solutions. By integrating technology into their transportation networks, cities will not only be able to provide customised mobility solutions for residents but also redesign a more sustainable urban transportation system to manage Covid-19.

1) Increase the safety and sustainability of micro-mobility services 

As mentioned above, safety concerns related to Covid-19 are shifting commuting patterns in our cities. Biking and walking are quickly becoming reliable modes of transportation, and major cities such as Paris are looking to redesign their neighbourhoods so that all amenities are within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Over the next 12 to 18 months, the Boston Consulting Group is expecting the use of micro-mobility (mainly bikes and e-scooters) to return to pre-crisis levels in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, McKinsey & Company projects increased profitability, and improved business case for micro-mobility services as government incentives and industry consolidation allow the sector to recover in the medium term.

However, since the threat of Covid-19 will likely remain for the foreseeable future, micro-mobility services will still need to be mindful of safety measures for consumers. Nancy Pfund, Founder and Managing Partner of DBL Partners, stated in an interview that micro-mobility services should look to adding “self-sanitising technology in their bikes and scooters, as it can enhance safety measures and potentially safeguard consumers from potential infections”.

For many years, self-sanitising technology has been used in several other applications, such as door handles in heavily trafficked environments. Ms Pfund mentioned that “Wheels, a portfolio company of DBL Partners, has partnered with NanoSeptic to bring a first-of-its-kind self-sanitising technology in the shared transportation space”. They are equipping their e-bike handlebars and brake levers with mineral nanocrystals that are powered by any visible light to create a powerful and toxin-free oxidation reaction that breaks down any organic contaminants at the microscopic level without the use of toxic substances, traditional heavy metals or dangerous chemicals. Even as Wheels adds this new safety feature to their e-bikes, Ms Pfund pointed out that “riders will see no additional cost and government approvals will not be required”. In the early phases of deployment, Wheels has received positive feedback from partner cities to bring this technology to market. Therefore, as governments and cities continue to announce new initiatives to make it easier for people to ride bikes and scooters, the addition of self-sanitising technology could play an important role in enhancing safety and enabling micro-mobility services to become a viable commuting option for workers and individuals.

Furthermore, as cities look to reopen their economies, there has been a growing focus on sustainable and climate-friendly solutions in the mobility space. Mayors and municipal authorities have scaled their infrastructure for micro-mobility services with the view that consumer adaptation could potentially allow such mobility options to become a cleaner alternative to car ride-sharing and public transport. Going forward, a key aspect that would enable micro-mobility services to become a cleaner alternative and drive down emissions will be based upon data-centric approaches to battery charging during off-peak hours to reduce a surge in the grid system. In the case of Wheels, Ms Pfund pointed out that unlike conventional methods where bikes are collected overnight and recharged, “the operations team at Wheels swaps the batteries and recharges them at a centralised location during off-peak hours”. Subsequently, these processes are beneficial in reducing recharging costs in addition to minimising the impact on the grid.

2) Deploy efficient on-demand mass transit solutions 

Public transit systems play an essential role in moving large numbers of people around the city. Before Covid-19, nearly three-quarters of all daily commuters and visitors took the subway, bus, train or ferry in New York. Meanwhile, in Washington, Boston and San Francisco, more than a third of commuters took public transit to work. However, Covid-19 has created several challenges for public transit systems. According to a recent study, transit usage dropped by 75% in March and has only reached 49% of pre-coronavirus usage rates as of July 1 in the United States. The sudden drop in demand has led to many transit agencies facing significant financial deficits and requiring bailouts from different levels of government. The need to enhance safety protocols and incorporate social distancing measures has also limited the number of people using public transit, even after some cities have started to reopen their economies. For this reason, many industry experts and urban planners have been contemplating ways to make public transportation more viable and cost-effective going forward.

Justin Hunt, CEO and Co-founder of Blaise Transit, recommended in an interview that transit agencies “look into using on-demand solutions with their existing fleets and stop networks as a way to deploy their services more efficiently and improve the passenger experience”. In the case of bus services, Mr Hunt highlighted that “on-demand mass-transit services would enable better allocation of resources, as buses from low capacity lines could be sent to relieve the load of the high capacity lines if they were all operated dynamically”. As the economy begins to reopen, transit systems will need to manage their capacities as a way to implement social distancing measures, and on-demand bus services can be a practical solution. In the past, on-demand mass-bus services have been piloted in cities such as Helsinki, Finland, and Belleville, Canada. Initial findings from both pilots have shown that on-demand transit solutions have the potential to optimise routes for passengers and add value to vehicular efficiency.

The trend towards on-demand transit services has started to take place in countries such as Canada. Belleville recently transitioned their transit services to on-demand-only as a way to manage the decrease in ridership. Aside from growing ridership, Mr Hunt highlighted that in other cities where they have analysed the potential for on-demand transit, they have found that “trips could be 11% shorter and 26% less expensive to serve on average if they had been operated with a demand-responsive system instead of the fixed bus service”. Given the uncertainties surrounding public transportation and the uptake in cycling and cars for short and long trips, respectively, transit agencies may want to look into on-demand solutions as a way to leverage existing infrastructure to move people safely in cities. As initial findings have shown, on-demand mass-transit systems can potentially create cost-effective solutions and provide more flexibility for passengers.

3) Optimise mobility solutions through public-private partnerships 

A key takeaway from Covid-19 has been the dramatic shift in consumer priorities about mobility.  A recent report by the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility found that consumers have started to prioritise health over time-to-destination following the pandemic. Based on the report’s findings, 14% of those surveyed mentioned that reducing the risk of infections was important, while 47% stated that time-to-destination was their primary consideration before Covid-19. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the survey found only 33% of respondents cited time-to-destination as important, while 45% indicated health safety as a significant factor in their travels.

As a result of these changing priorities, consumers have started to prefer private cars, bikes and walking as their primary mode of transportation, with a declining perception and usage for shared mobility services (SMS). However, despite the short-term decline, McKinsey is projecting a strong recovery for SMS in the medium and long term. The report foresees that enhanced safety measures and support from cities to promote SMS as an alternative to private car ownership will drive growth after the Covid-19 crisis.

As consumer priorities and mobility patterns change, cities will need to efficiently manage their transportation options to foster a sustainable urban ecosystem. A balance will be required to factor private cars, public transportation and new mobility services as the market demand evolves. For this reason, municipal authorities should look into data-driven public-private partnerships (P3s) to implement integrated mobility in cities. Philippe Rapin, CEO of Urban Radar, stated in an interview that by leveraging P3s, “cities will be able to better provide public and private mobility services in a more structured and safe manner to citizens”. At a time when health safety remains important, Mr Rapin added that P3 models would allow “cities to optimise their public transit system with private mobility services to deliver safety measures and provide first- and last-mile connectivity to citizens taking into account social equity”.

According to Mr Rapin, Urban Radar’s technology platform, which integrates the P3 model, has been able to help city planners manage the adoption of shared mobility in their city. “For the past year, we have worked with various municipal level governments to capture data from all operators to provide daily trip pattern insights. By leveraging Urban Radar’s P3-integrated platform, municipal authorities have had the flexibility to add new mobility providers in coordination with the public transit system to enable more customised mobility solutions for residents”, he noted. In the coming years, as cities look to accommodate shared micro-mobility and manage the use of public transportation, the insights from both public and private mobility services will play an essential role in providing efficient transportation services for residents.