Smart Mobility

November 8, 2021

Will COVID-19 fundamentally change mobility?

The outbreak of COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with the world around us and has provoked a shift in many industries. The unexpected pandemic and the measures taken to moderate the negative consequences have led us to the biggest disruption of the century. Analyzing and adapting quickly to several future scenarios may be the key to success in this period of uncertainty. The mobility sector has been one of the industries most affected by the outbreak. Here we take a look at the immediate impact of the isolation measures on the industry and explore the degree to which the long term consequences may affect mobility even after the peak of the pandemic passes. Those who can champion flexibility and innovation may emerge one step ahead of the competition in the future, but collaboration plays a role as well.

Initial Mobility Shifts

With news of the virus spreading more each day, public mass transit became a highly suspected transmission risk due to heavy user volume and limited space. Most public transport has several shared surfaces like handles and seats on which we usually rely to keep us comfortable and stable, but indirectly encourage touching. Coupled with the impossible task of identifying potential virus carriers in a fairly closed environment, much of public transport became a less attractive option and saw a corresponding decline in users.

But what about shared mobility during the weeks just before the quarantine? As the gravity of the situation developed, some cities started incorporating additional bike lanes in the search for social distancing, and experienced a notable uptick in cycling. Bogotá, Colombia, for example, opened 76 kilometres of temporary bike lanes while Citi Bike in New York saw demand increase by 67% in March. Alternatively, other shared mobility companies operating in countries moving faster to restrict movement to reduce the spread experienced the opposite effect. Major VTC companies like Uber and Cabify saw a decline in demand of 60% in Spain in the week prior to the quarantine.

As the virus continued to spread, additional measures were taken in an attempt to curb transmission through transportation. Several mobility operators increased their internal communications to distribute behavioral guidelines and new COVID policies to their operational staff. Most states enhanced their cleaning regimes — requiring all mobility companies to include stronger substances in their materials and to increase the number of times surfaces like rails, handles and doors were cleaned.

The European Union then directed all transport systems in each member country to curtail many mobility services, instate border controls and suspend tourism.

Mobility during shelter in place

This directive was then reproduced in most countries around the globe and we quickly transitioned from a period of uncertainty and initial restriction to a near total shutdown of all non-essential movement. The restrictions have predictably started to create financial difficulties for transport companies that are no longer in regular use. They likewise have put a heavy strain on those still working in the sector who have had to shoulder the responsibility of supplying their communities with minimum necessities including transportation.

As confinement continues today, most public transit ridership has significantly dropped off worldwide, but we do see some exceptions. Unsurprisingly, the reduction of commuters using mass public transport is directly proportional to the severity of the shelter in place measures and the inability to adopt rapid testing. From the 16th of February to the 29th of March, transit use in the United Kingdom and Spain decreased by 75% and 88%, respectively. In other countries, however, like Sweden or South Korea, where there have been different approaches to managing the pandemic, the decrease has been less severe at 36% and 17%. South Korea for example successfully implemented a rapid quarantine and deployed extensive testing which allowed people to resume the use of transportation, albeit at a reduced pace. Though our current situation looks bleak, we can safely infer that ridership will increase once the confinement is lifted if we use these countries, as well as others like China as an example. The country at the epicenter of the pandemia is now reopening after months of lockdown and is seeing metro ridership gradually increase in several cities as they start to recover.

Photo by Jemima Whyles on Unsplash

But what about shared mobility? The shared mobility sector has likewise seen a sharp decrease in activity despite initial boosts prior to the quarantine measures. BiciMAD, a Madrid-based bike sharing company, has completely shut down operations until further notice. For those countries where mobility is limited rather than restricted, or for the workforce that still needs transportation, we have seen the shift toward shared modes continue as they permit greater distance than the metro or the bus. In Beijing, bike share use has increased by an estimated 150%.

From public transit to shared mobility, aviation too has been greatly affected by the pandemic as is demonstrated by financial stats. Lufthansa for example is in negotiations with the German government about possible state aid to provide both faster recovery for widespread cancellations and a head start for normal (or new normal) operations once the pandemic subsides.

If you would like to see additional changes in the mobility sector by country as a result of the policies established to combat COVID-19, take a look at this extensive report developed by Google.

The industry response

Though deeply impacted, both private and public entities in the mobility sector have developed (and are continuing to develop) creative and fast responses to meet new needs. Initiatives range from security and hygiene upgrades to entirely new use cases.

Structural Changes:

  • Bombardier Rail in Vienna has created an enclosed driver’s cabin.
  • GVB Amsterdam’s public transport operator has installed protective screens on all trams.


Pricing & Cancellation Policies:

New Use Cases & Technology:

While the cost of these measures has been considerable, this rapid reaction from public transportation and micromobility services has helped contain the virus and has therefore hopefully eased some of the strain on the already saturated healthcare system. Though mobility companies may have to rethink or adjust some of their services post-pandemic, their swift responses have helped reassure the public and may create a sense of lasting trust that paves the way for a faster return to regular use once it is safe.

Take a closer look at all the initiatives by shared mobility companies in this extensive list compiled by Augustin Friedel, Director of Intermodality Strategy for Volkswagen.

Mobility after Covid?

Provider Perspective Beyond the real-time responses, transportation providers may have longer term challenges ahead. If some of the new demands that COVID has placed on transit endure past the peak of the pandemic, operators may need to start with more permanent safety measures or even consider deeper changes. As reported by Richard Florida and Steven W Pedigo from Texas University, there are certain actions that public and private transport can take to ensure a safer future:

  • Redesigning the Public Transport System: When Mass public transportation becomes a viable option, it may require new seating arrangements, capacity limitations and even the redistribution of certain stations and stops.
  • Mobilising Airports: Procedures that should be regularly adopted include conducting body temperature checks, health screenings, crowd reduction and delays to promote social distance.
  • Updating Our Streets: To accommodate ongoing social distancing, adjustments will need to be made. Adding and expanding bike lanes, rethinking shared mobility and sidewalk redesign are only some of the changes that may occur in cities.
Photo by Tedward Quinn on Unsplash

The ability to bounce back will also depend on the business model.

Antoine Verhulst, data analyst at Blablacar, believes the flexible and resilient model of the company will make it easier to return to relatively typical use of the services. Not having many fixed costs will also facilitate faster recovery. Gerard Martret, founding partner at Shotl on-demand shuttles, emphasizes the importance of data and believes technology is the key to rapid recuperation. Shotl, which matches multiple passengers heading in the same direction to the same shuttle, is now using data to limit the number of passengers in each vehicle. The user limitation permits social distancing and would continue to do so post-COVID should passengers demand. Martret also predicts that new tools to track anonymized user health will appear to help prevent situations like this one.

Still others believe that there may be a positive outcome for micromobility companies that are able to survive. Bradley Tusk, co-founder and managing partner of Tusk Ventures and investor in Bird, stated that commuters may avoid the more traditional forms of mass public transport (like buses and metros) in favor of more individual modes like scooters or bikes. User behavior in certain cities has confirmed this hypothesis to be true at least in the short term. Governments may accordingly loosen regulations for micro mobility providers and reverse bans, paving the way for new users.

Further, the transport industry may find itself under more pressure to answer to environmental concerns. The decline of daily commuting and transport has (at great cost) had a positive impact on air quality. As outlined by Intelligent Transport, research has revealed how the COVID-19 lockdown has significantly decreased NO2 emissions and reduced the risk of illnesses produced or aggravated by pollution. These environmental improvements generated by the COVID response (and sought after by much of the public prior to the outbreak) may pressure the mobility sector to be more aggressive with regard to developing and promoting sustainable commuting and governments to regulate emissions — including those produced by private vehicle use. A future MaaS model would serve to reduce our collective carbon footprint while ensuring access to transportation that allows for social distancing and live updates around crowds.

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

User Perspective

To explore the user perspective, Meep conducted a survey to understand how our community feels about the future use of transportation. Roughly 75% of the 500 respondents expressed willingness to use transportation after the quarantine in similar ways to how they used it prior to the outbreak; however, the results of the survey also tell us that half of the respondents see social distancing in public transport as a valuable tool that should remain once the quarantine ends.

This could lead to differences in commuting patterns and indicates that city life may also experience significant change. Though a dense population is part of what defines a city, city dwellers could continue to seek space and distance. This may, for example, come in the form of remote work, which overtime, would remove proximity to work as a factor in choosing where to live. Longer term, we may see city boundaries expanding or general relocation which would alter needs and uses of transportation.

Turning again to survey results, respondents also continue to trust public transportation, but expect operators to maintain some of the exceptional measures established during the COVID-19 period, even after the virus becomes less of a threat. Despite this generally positive perception of public transportation, respondents have also developed a sense of mistrust toward governing bodies. This stems primarily from a perceived mismanagement and lack of efficiency with regard to battling the virus.

General Takeaways

We see many businesses from all sectors, mobility included, proceeding with caution but also flexibility with regard to company direction. Common threads among successful entities include:

  • Preparing plans for multiple scenarios since a global outbreak such as COVID is unprecedented and we cannot be certain of the future.
  • Considering alternate use cases for existing technology, products or services including company assets, like data.
  • Establishing and expanding digital channels as digital content consumption has both increased and expanded.
  • Adopting or enhancing Corporate Social Responsibility policies that contribute to the community.

Meep will continue to track news in the mobility industry and share via our regular newsletter. We are already updating our algorithm and platform to meet the evolving and dynamic needs of both our operator partners and our commuters, including contactless ticketing and the digitalization of the transport network and services. Our aim to provide a smarter, more sustainable way of moving around, however, has remained the same. In these uncertain and difficult times, we hope that our technology can contribute in some small way to the recovery of cities and city dwellers by empowering safe mobility.

Main image: Photo by Liza Rusalskaya on Unsplash