During COVID-19, the transportation industry is taking a beating. Commercial fleets are grounded. New York City alone saw a 900% drop in passengers on its subway and commuter rail lines. Airlines lost up to 90% of customers in under three months. With fears around transmission high — not least amongst transit workers — and a global economic downturn looming, can technology give transport a fighting chance?
There’s no question that transportation has fuelled the local-global-local spread of the virus. In American cities, anyone relying on public transit to get to work — which includes a disproportionate number of essential workers, healthcare providers, and first responders — has faced a tricky decision: find an alternative or risk infection.
And while biking and walking are fine for local commutes, they’re less ideal for longer distances. Meanwhile, legitimate concerns over sanitization and lack of distancing have made ride-sharing businesses like Lyft and Uber — unaffordable for many in the first place — a non-starter.
With the help of the government’s recent stimulus package of $26 billion, transportation agencies — in partnership with tech companies — are ramping up their pandemic response. The following are a few of the innovations likely to play a major role in making public transport safe, resilient, equitable, and generally better or everyone.
- Connected vehicles put customers front and center
The way people move around has changed. From rides-haring to autonomous vehicles — a new multimodal mobility ecosystem has emerged. Complex and highly connected, they represent an opportunity to overhaul a transportation network that was flagging, even pre-coronavirus. And data is its lifeblood.
For example, social distancing on a bus may require it to be half full. Artificial intelligence-enabled transport gives agencies the data and analytics to monitor how many are on board in real-time — and then share that information with waiting passengers. By keeping tabs on demand for specific routes, agencies can also adjust to lay on more vehicles as needed to ensure distancing rules are met.
Travel apps will be commonplace. Not only for hailing rides, but also for providing contactless ticketing and mobility planning — with health and safety features — to give people the power to plan exactly how, when, and where to travel.
Helsinki delivers mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) using Whim whereby residents plan and pay for all their transport needs, from bike to train, using a single app. A similar project has been rolled out in eight counties of Colorado, where users plan journeys across transit systems, rideshare, and e-bike services, making multiple payments in one place.
- Micro-mobility goes big
Another important element of any wider transport strategy to enable social distancing and efficiency will be micro-transit and micro-mobility. San Francisco was just one city to report a spike in the use of e-bikes and scooters during the recent pandemic. And residents in Wuhan, China relied on scooter delivery services to ferry groceries and essential items.
When it comes to enabling solo transportation around dense urban areas, micro-mobility — if deemed low risk — will be essential for underserved communities. Single-seat cars, e-bikes, scooters, and Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (PUMA) vehicles will make local travel convenient and plug the gap between various modes of transport.
- Rethinking ridesharing
In spite of being dealt a severe blow during COVID-19, key rideshare providers, Uber and Lyft, are pivoting their services to partner with healthcare organizations and provide medical transportation to those with limited options.
Beyond the pandemic, first and last-mile ridesharing — alongside fractional and neighborhood ownership — will extend mobility to underserved areas. They’ll be supported by mobility hubs that bring together public and private modes of transport, typically located in areas of high employment, housing, shopping, and recreation.
- Automated deliveries
The pandemic is putting a tremendous strain on global supply chains and logistics. As such, we’re likely to see continued adoption of autonomous, e-vehicles, and drones right across goods distribution in a bid to reduce transmission and accelerate delivery times.
In China, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are already undertaking frontline work like cleaning and transporting medical supplies and food. In California, autonomous vehicle startup, Nuro, uses delivery robots to move medical supplies along fixed routes between makeshift hospitals. And food banks in the Bay Area are deploying AVs to ferry groceries safely.
A recent report by the World Economic Forum suggests that a rise in online orders pre-coronavirus will necessitate 36% more delivery vehicles in inner cities by 2030. The pandemic has since exacerbated that need so long-term autonomous vehicles could be critical to tackling the last-mile delivery challenge.
- AI meets aviation
From artificial intelligence to machine learning, tech is redefining our air travel experience. In airports, touchless technologies like facial recognition, thermal sensing, baggage screening apps, and computed tomography scanners are delivering faster, safer, more hygienic security.
At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, Delta Airlines runs the country’s first biometric terminal. Using facial recognition technology, photos are compared in real-time with images stored on the Customs and Border Patrol database to expedite the flow of passengers and skip the need to scan boarding passes.
- Transport tailored to the individual
Transport of the future can only help keep people safe during a pandemic — and optimize efficiency and cut emissions — if it’s equitable. Also, ensuring everyone can get to work is fundamental to stimulating the economy. As such, pilot programs to test new payment options such as mileage-based pricing that make transport affordable are front of mind for many agencies.
Seamless, automated, on-demand travel
With 68% of the world’s population predicted to live in cities by 2050 — in the grip of a pandemic that’s far from over — we need a seismic shift in the way we think about transport. What it looks like, how it runs, and who it serves.
To survive, agencies need to put customer experience (CX) at the heart of any successful strategy. Innovation across the ecosystem — also hoped to cut emissions and congestion — will require new partnerships between public and private players. Only together can we shape the future of safer, faster, and cleaner multimodal transport.