Covid-19, threat or opportunity for on-demand mobility?

Covid-19 has brought the world to a grinding halt, affecting lives and businesses. But this enforced hiatus is also an opportunity to take stock, so we can be better prepared next time.  

Citymapper’s Mobility Index is a mirror on a world at a standstill. Some major cities in the US and Europe are moving at just 3-5% of normal levels, while in Asia the wheels are slowly starting to turn again.   

Most of us were unprepared for the pandemic, transit authorities included. As ridership and ticket sales plummeted, their challenge has been to balance cost-cutting with maintaining essential services and protecting passengers and staff. Some have opted to increase frequency to avoid overcrowding, others installed partitions, enabled rear door boarding, lifted ticket barriers or suspended fares to minimize interaction and enable social distancing.

Like so many measures, though, these are sticking plasters after the fact, and Covid-19 is a wake-up call. Global pandemics are not a thing of the past; next time we need to be better prepared. Flexible, adaptable transit is required in unprecedented circumstances like these, and now is the time for on-demand mobility providers to step up with innovative solutions that turn threats into opportunities.   

Chief among those current threats is our newfound fear of shared space, something our ancestors would identify with. Physical distancing to prevent disease spread was built into the wide avenues and sprawling early 20th-century urban planning that has proved so disastrous for social fabric and the environment. Now, that fear threatens the recent trend towards shared mobility, something single-occupancy ride-hails have wasted no time capitalizing on.   

It’s not all bad news, though. Overnight, Covid-19 has catapulted us into a car-free utopia of emptier, quieter streets and cleaner air. For some, individual micromobility—especially cycling—has become the transport of choice and some cities are suspending share scheme charges or increasing lanes in response. The challenge now is to build on any shift to more sustainable mobility rather than reverting to business-as-usual post-coronavirus. Nor can fear be allowed to stall or reverse car-reduction policies if newly liberated commuters shun public transport for private vehicles.  

Getting back to normal, whatever that looks like, and preparing for the next crisis means we need to start thinking differently about a lot of things. It’s here that public-private partnerships and on-demand mobility based on technology like Shotl’s can help. Imagine being able to predict demand and react in real-time, dispatching vehicles only where and when necessary. As well as cutting costs, this flexibility allows for services tailored to the staggered timetables recommended as people return to work. Booking and payment via app also eliminate the need for staff to monitor onboard capacity or interact with passengers. And personalized, data-driven mobility even offers the possibility to segment riders by age, risk-category or other demographics, or deploy shared shuttles for certain workers or other collectives.   

This crisis reminds us that mobility is an essential service just like health and supply chains: transport workers are putting themselves on the front line daily so others can go where they are needed. Going forward, transit must be flexible and adaptable enough to withstand change and lost revenue whilst still keeping us moving. The world is likely to look a little different when the dust settles. It’s time to think about whether mobility should too.

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