The Impact of COIVD-19 on Shared Mobility: How it Started Vs How it’s Going

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When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in early last year, more and more countries across the globe shut down their borders and limited transportation and travel to contain the outbreak. This created a seismic shift in the travel behaviour of commuters around the world. The pandemic upended travel and triggered a crisis for public transit and shared mobility services, globally. Since the beginning of the outbreak to present day, we have seen unprecedented changes. Not just in our transportation systems, but also in our lifestyle choices, how we interact with each other and how we treat our planet. As we emerge from the COVID-19 restrictions placed upon us, it’s important to not that we are not out of the woods just yet. In a recent analysis from the World Health Organisation (WHO), this month, they warn us that,

“Covid is still ‘troubling and dangerous… globally, in the past week the number of new cases and deaths both increased when compared to the previous week. Nearly three million new cases of Covid-19 were reported globally, with some 56,000 new deaths over the past week. Cumulative deaths have now surpassed four million.”

World Health Organization, July, 2021

In this article, we will discuss:

  • The biggest developments in the shared mobility industry over the last 12 months
  • The major themes that came to the surface in the transportation sector
  • How these themes will impact the design and implementation of future mobility systems

For similar reading, download our ‘Rebuild Tomorrow’s Mobility: Reporting back on the impact of COVID-19 in Vancouver, 2020’

The Last Twelve Months

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Source: www.unsplash.com

Public Transit

In mid-March 2020, public transit ridership for many agencies fell by over 60 percent globally. In Canada, the abrupt halt in ridership on buses, resulted in a historic year-over-year passenger decrease in April 2020. Following a 42% decline in March, the number of passenger trips fell 85% in April. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reported that ridership had dropped in mid-March of 2020 by about 50 percent on buses, 60 percent on subways, and up to 90 percent on commuter rail, compared to the same time period in 2019.

Health and safety concerns were not the only reason people chose not to ride on public transit. Our transportation systems are also built for rush hour. It’s why highways are so wide and it’s when transit runs most frequently. But peak travel did not exist during the height of the pandemic, as many people began working from home.

At the beginning these empty buses and trains were a great sign that people were adhering to social distancing restrictions. But within weeks, we started to realize that our “essential workers” were struggling to get to work as the transit systems they relied on cut schedules. The decline in ridership also lead to a loss of revenue across public transportation globally. In Brazil it is estimated to have cost bus operators as much as USD 188 million in daily fare losses, according to the National Association of Urban Transport.  At the same time, most agencies had to spend whatever they could on protecting their passengers and staff, such as increased cleaning and disinfecting schedules and physical barriers for drivers. In Kigali, Rwanda, they flooded their bus stops with portable sinks and hand sanitisers, at no small expense to the government.

More than twelve months later, ridership is increasing once again. However, we have to remember that Covid didn’t cause all the issues we faced over the last year, it merely shed a light on what was already broken. We need to start focusing on on building ridership back up again and one way to do this is improve transit service in places where ridership already exists, where ridership is already strong. What that means is to really focus on low income communities and on the places where people didn’t stop using transit during the Pandemic. As many white collar workers discuss whether or not they need to go back to the office, we have an opportunity to evaluate where public transit resources should now go and to create more equitable and resilience public transit systems.

“Increasing resilience in our transportation system means:
1. Increasing complexity of the system by increasing diversity of modes: create choice and promote diverse modes of vehicles, various sizes, geographical areas etc.
2. Connecting different systems: increased complexity is great but if it stays disconnected it cannot be considered an ecosystem.
3. Reducing Stressors through regulations and management: the regulatory bodies should create a regulatory framework that looks at all alternative transportation options holistically.”

Sandra Phillips | Founder & CEO, movmi
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Source: www.unsplash.com

Other ways in which public transit agencies are improving is by upgrading their physical assets to create a cleaner and safer environment. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is permanently adding denser air filters for its train ventilation, as well as testing UV light rods that help zap air particles. BART is also piloting a new configuration of seats that creates more space between passengers.

TransLink, Vancouver was also the first transit agency in North America to test copper on transit surfaces. The pilot was launched as part of TransLink’s COVID-19 response through the Safe Operating Action Plan because of preceding studies showing that copper is both durable and effective at killing bacteria. Results from from the trial show that copper is effective at killing bacteria on high-touch transit surfaces. Based on sample-testing performed on transit and in a lab, the trial concluded that select copper products on transit are durable and kill up to 99.9 per cent of all bacteria within one hour of the bacteria’s contact with the surface. The pilot’s second phase will include testing copper products on more train cars and buses and testing over a longer amount of time to analyze varied conditions.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is updating its HVAC across its Boston network. They are also sharing live data about how crowded its buses are to riders online, on a smartphone app and on in-station screens — allowing riders to make informed decisions about the transport before they get on it.

In light of the flaws in the current fare-based system exposed by the pandemic, one radical approach could be to provide free public transportation in cities. In 2018, Dunkirk, France, provided free public transit to its residents, funded by a small increase in business tax. Passengers increased by 60% during the week and doubled on weekends – with nearly 50,000 trips made per day. This could potentially create a more resilient funding model for the future. Not only could free public transit reduce carbon emissions and air pollution but it could also ease the pressures on disadvantaged households in our major cities.

Starting in September, children aged 12 and younger in British Columbia, Canada won’t have to pay to take public transit, including bus, SeaBus or SkyTrain services. The free fare includes rides on both TransLink and BC Transit systems. This could save families in Metro Vancouver up to $672 a year per child, compared to the price of a monthly TransLink pass. This model will not only bridge the equity gap within public transportation but also create a new generation of public transit users and advocates.

Private Cars Usage Vs Shared Trips

During the pandemic we also saw an increase in personal car usage. Social distancing measures and health concerns led to more people choosing to drive alone during the pandemic to reduce exposure to the COVID-19 virus and so driving remains one of the preferred ways to travel, despite the negative environmental impact of petrol-powered cars. Use of the car for trips increased by 3.8% during the pandemic and unfortunately looks set to stick as the preference for post-pandemic travel. However, the proportion of people claiming they will buy a new car this year did decline from 29% to 25% mostly motivated by people delaying the purchase rather than by giving up the idea of buying a car altogether.

The various forms of ride-hailing that had previously seen growth also declined due to the restraints of social distancing, fear of contagion and reduced commuting. Transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Lyft and Uber, also reported ridership drops in Summer 2020 ranging from 54 to 75 percent compared to the prior year. However, unlike other transportation sectors, delivery services driven by growth in e-commerce became very profitable for the first time, as people chose to stay at home.

Ride-hail companies adopted strategies such as providing barriers between driver and passenger, equipping the vehicle with sanitizers, and enforcing the use of a face mask at all times. Some companies are even installing digital thermometers to measure passengers’ body temperature in order to eliminate the virus infection threat. However, the added precautionary measures has already caused a surge in fares, which has and will continue to lead to a mode shift for many people not willing to pay more for their rides.

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Tweet from Augustin Friedel

Carsharing services were also reduced or, in some cases, services were even suspended during lockdowns. Despite carsharing providers’ efforts to communicate safety measures, for eg. ShareNow, one survey revealed that only five to eight percent of 8,000 surveyed customers think that shared-mobility services were safe from a health perspective. However, in May 2020, as soon as they were able to start moving again, travellers in large numbers made the switch to carsharing: a mode of transport seen as reassuring because the driver is either alone or with close friends/relatives. Carsharing therefore attracted new customers more quickly than taxis or modes of public transport that are shared with strangers.

“By the end of the year, carsharing activity stood at around 70-90% of its pre-lockdown levels, compared to 40-50% for taxis and public transport.”

Vincent Carré | Director of car sharing operations at Renault Group.

According to Statista’s Global Consumer Survey, 32 percent of people in India said they have used a carsharing service in the last 12 months in India while 17 percent have availed of one in China. Companies offering carsharing services are also making their presence felt in Europe with 11 percent of online respondents in both Italy and Spain saying they have booked and used such a service in the last 12 months as well.

Micromobility

Healthier modes of transport like walking and cycling have seen a noticeable increase in popularity, particularly in Europe with a 4.8 percent year-on-year rise. Walking is the most preferred mode, and the most satisfying across all cities with satisfaction scores of 78 out of 100. In our Rebuild Tomorrow’s Mobility report which was completed during the second wave of the Pandemic, we noted that health concerns created the most dramatic changes in travel behaviour from having a 9% influence pre-Covid-19 to a 61% influence. It’s interesting that the healthier modes which were popular at the height of the pandemic are still one of the most popular modes of transit in the third wave. Perhaps we are seeing a true mode shift across our cities. 

“The eBike boom is by far the biggest positive trend emerging out of this pandemic. Straight up buying ebikes and subscription models have been so consistently popular, that recently the UK saw an ebike sold every 3 minutes (2 ebikes per electric car sold). Blessing in disguise, transit agencies have opened up to integrated shared mobility programs more than ever. The openness to public private partnerships in digital payments, multimodal trip planning and MaaS solutions is welcome.”

Venkatesh Gopal | Head of Partnerships & Business Development, movmi

The pandemic showed us that planners with the help of the city were able to rapidly increase the use of active transportation through the conversion of streets for pedestrians and cyclists in cities such as Berlin, Vienna, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Bogota and Mexico City which temporarily converted car lanes into bike lanes and pedestrian spaces. Milan, Italy invested in the Lazzaretto and Isola pilot projects to create more protected and accessible roads for everyone, offer new public spaces for adults and children, and encourage travel by foot/bicycle/e-scooter for urban displacements through a diversified, complementary, and alternative offer to public transport and private car.

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Source: https://use.metropolis.org/case-studies/pop-up-bike-lanes

Many countries also adopted policies including financial support, for the relaunch of transport through more sustainable modes, which included an investment of €100 million in Italy to incentivize the transition to
sustainable solutions, such as electric vehicles, e-bikes, and e-scooters, as well as the possibility for e-scooters to become part of the public transport offering.

Lyft, with its e-scooter program Lyftup offered free 30-min rides for first respondents, the transit workforce, and healthcare providers in Denver, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; the Washington, D. C. area; San Diego, California and Santa Monica, California. This program was in addition to bicycle share programs offering free membership for critical workers on networks that Lyft operates including City Bike (NewYork), Divvy (Chicago), Bluebikes (Boston area), and Bay Wheels (SF Bay Area).

In Europe, the shared e-scooter company Bird equipped Red Cross volunteers with a donated fleet of Bird e-scooters to enable easier transportation around urban neighborhoods so they could provide healthcare assistant to those in need.

The uptick of micromobility transportation options and the reductions in motor vehicle travel have contributed to improvements in air quality. Worldwide, carbon emissions are down by a record 7%, with the decline in road transport emissions for the year at 10%. The pandemic has also given service providers an opportunity to form tighter relationships with both communities and municipalities. However, despite the overall popularity of micro transit services during the pandemic, many services had to reduce their workforce and suspend operations in order to survive. As a consequence, many service operators are now facing huge short-term profitability challenges.

3 Themes That Emerged

Remote Work

With more than two-thirds of city dwellers currently working from home there has been a significant shift in travel behaviour. In a report from Mckinsey and Company, considering only remote work that can be done without a loss of productivity, they found that about 20 to 25 percent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week. This represents four to five times more remote work than before the pandemic. An average of 50% of workers plan to continue working remotely after the pandemic, so the new normal will see a significant change in mobility priorities and the continuation of remote working post pandemic will most definitely transform commuter culture. Therefore we need to design and shape our transportation systems with this ‘new normal’ in mind.

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Source: Kantar’s New study, Mobility Futures, 2021

Mode Changes

People’s needs and preferences have evolved throughout the different stages of the pandemic, therefore infrastructure must transform to meet those needs. We have seen an increase in the usage of healthier modes over the last 12 months. Throughout Europe and across the world, pop-up bike lanes demonstrated that it is possible to quickly move the cursor towards healthy travel in cities and. E-bikes have also emerged as a highly satisfactory mobility solution in urban areas – with the biggest increase in satisfaction globally.

According to research conducted by MIT on the benefits of shared mobility, by prioritizing this type of mobility, we could also reduce parking spaces in cities by 86%, freeing up precious public space and radically rethinking how space is used. This could allow other intermodal services to be introduced that could bring other benefits such as removing traffic congestion, reducing journey times and road accidents, and safeguarding the environment by reducing CO₂ emissions.

Staying local

According to Kantar’s New study, Mobility Futures, 2021, there has been a shift to localism, linked to the combined effect of the rise of working from home and of people enjoying healthier modes of transport like biking, walking or e-scooters. The pandemic has created an increased focus on staying local and making shorter trips. This trend could positively impact the ‘15-minute city’ movement. Micromobility is a key component in this shift, as it is suitable for short journeys in busy urban environments, so perhaps it will replace cars and taxis for that purpose within local communities.

“Cities and towns worldwide have embraced active transportation, slower streets and allocated road spaces away from vehicular traffic to bikes, pedestrians and local businesses. Trends have remained fairly resilient over the winter in 2020. Lesson learnt – the newly found neighborhood love among residents has shed light over what it would take to change mobility patterns – friendly infrastructure – and maybe not going to work :)”

Venkatesh Gopal | Head of Partnerships & Business Development, movmi

These evolutions in mobility also bring opportunities, such as:

  • An accelerated move to greener cities
  • The chance to rework transport user experience and improve satisfaction
  • The prospect of creating multi-modal and sustainable transportation services
  • The ability to act fast and rapidly change policy

Overall, the COVID-19 crisis not only devastated many public transit and shared mobility services, but it exposed underlying issues in how mobility is provided to society. Short-term fixes, while critical, will not solve pervasive transportation issues related to access, high-quality service, and social equity. For public transit and shared mobility services to recover in the short- and long-term, they will require a significant focus on policy and planning to ensure future sustainability that meets critical societal goals.

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