Beyond the devastating effects of COVID-19 on different sectors of society, this global crisis is also catalyzing trends that were already evident. Perhaps it’s time we start seeing this crisis as another agent in the process of global transformation, rather than as a discrete event in itself. While we can trust in our resilience as humans to adjust to the coronavirus, this moment will undoubtedly have short, medium, and long-term effects on transportation.
We are certain that mobility and transportation will never be the same again. This is because the transportation sector is ripe with a variety of innovations that went from being temporary fixes to permanent practices. “People don’t want to go back,” said Jarett Walker, a transit consultant and author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. But what exactly are these challenges and possibilities that may be characteristic of a post-COVID transportation era?
More automation in transportation
Somehow, people will have to move from where they live to where they work, study, and do whatever they wish to do. However, urban mobility and commercial transit in the pre-COVID era have always involved certain practices that will be out of place and unfavorable in a post-COVID society. Some of which include long lines, interactions with other passengers in sometimes cramped buses and trains, and physical contact with public surfaces. While it can be quite challenging to make a prediction for the future, the transportation sector will most likely make a shift towards contactless accessibility that may end up eliminating most, if not all of the touchpoints that have existed up until now.
Operators in this sector will be expected to roll out strategies that will support automation moving forward. This could include strategies such as the elimination of doors with handles in favor of more advanced gesture-based ones, gesture-based interactions with payment kiosks, as well as robots or cleaning systems capable of sanitizing surfaces continuously. We might also be on course for a new wave of AI revolution in the transport sector in the areas such as booking, scheduling, vehicle boarding, and security screening, among others. All of these efforts to make transportation safer and cleaner would also require the involvement of public health officials and governments across all levels, especially for transport policy responses, benchmarking, as well as regulatory, and compliance purposes. The goal in all of these efforts is to restore public confidence to assure them that they won’t be at an unnecessary risk.
Car dependency in a post-COVID world
Car dependency has always been a challenge for America as most towns and cities are built around automobiles. For obvious reasons, the mass transit of people in groups increases the rate of spread of infection. UK researchers that studied data from the 2008 – 2009 influenza season discovered that people who used public transport were about six times more likely to seek care for an acute respiratory sickness, compared to those who did not ride in trams and buses.
In conversation with Jeff Wood, of the Overhead Wire, he points out that COVID is likely to further reinforce whatever inclination people had before the pandemic. In other words, transit funding friendly or transit funding hostile folks won’t seem to be persuaded by COVID to change their position with respect to the car-centric nature of our mobility options. While this automobile dependency has always been an issue of grave social, cultural, and environmental concern, research has also shown that this can be detrimental to one’s personal health. A 2004 study on public health and transportation revealed that an individual’s risk of obesity increases by up to 6% with every extra hour spent in a car, each day. Obesity, in turn, increases susceptibility to diabetes and heart disease, both of which also increases an individual’s vulnerability to COVID-19 complications. It leaves us almost feeling like we are stuck in a Catch-22.
Integrating contact tracing with transportation
There are also plans for technology that could be integrated into transportation to help with contact tracing. Both Apple and Google are already working on this. This kind of system is expected to have the capability of alerting individuals if they’ve ridden on a bus or a train with another passenger who later tested positive for coronavirus. There is already a similar technology being used in China, Singapore, and a host of other countries. This makes sense to be included as a part of the discussion as contract tracing could be paramount to getting people to feel more comfortable and at ease with the thought of leaving their homes.
Just last year, Google rolled out a new feature for Google Maps that allows commuters to know whether buses and trains will be crowded or not. That system uses traffic information and crowdsourcing and is already available for about 200 cities across the world. While government officials have not started using this to manage crowds and traffic, China already uses a similar technology to manage road traffic. If paired with smartphones this technology can help passengers avoid crowded buses and reduce traffic congestion both of which will be expected in a post-COVID world.
Privacy concerns and other challenges for post-COVID mobility
While technology will be at the forefront of the transport revolution, there will also be issues with surveillance and privacy challenges with many of the systems and technology that will be deployed. China, Singapore, South Korea, and many of the other countries that have achieved success with contract tracing were only able to achieve this much since the constitution allows tracking credit card history, cell phone location, and other details about an infected person.
There is likely going to be a hot debate as to whether giving this much priority to public health and safety is worth relinquishing one’s privacy, especially in most parts of Europe and America where cultural differences will come into play. Will the American public, for example, be ready for such a strict level of contract tracing in the age of the coronavirus? Maybe, or maybe not.
Goods delivery in the coronavirus era
Our recent piece on robotics and contactless engagement portrayed a vivid picture of what the transportation of goods and retail delivery will be like with social distancing measures in place. This has been made possible with the adoption of autonomous delivery robots and driverless delivery vehicles for point to point delivery of goods. This space is currently being dominated by the likes of Nuro whose driverless Nuro R2 delivery vehicle got the green light to begin testing in California, amid the pandemic. There’s also Starship technologies whose 20-pound capacity delivery robot is already servicing campuses across the country delivery foods.
Many of the technologies and players in this sector of the transport industry have been around pre-COVID. The pandemic has however caused a shift and driven more attention towards them. These are already being used to deliver essential supplies for healthcare professionals amid the pandemic.
Stakeholders in commercial transit will start new conversations and develop strategies around automation, infection-proofing, contract tracing, health checks, assessment, etc. These discussions will be needed to develop a safer and effective way to transport people and goods. People may also start considering alternatives that could range from private cars, ride-hailing, biking, or not even commuting at all as is the case with most employees who are able to work from home. The coronavirus pandemic will open new possibilities and challenges. Whether all of these predictions turn out to be accurate or not, certainly, transportation will never be the same again.
Catalyst TALKS: Transportation
As a bonus though piece, if you have time, I recently spoke with graduate students at San Jose State University. We discussed data, privacy, COVID, and the future of work.
The class, MTM 217 Leadership and Management in Transportation Organizations, is a study of the human resource aspects of managing transportation systems, including labor/management collaboration/negotiation and consultative employee relations programs. It builds skills in leadership and team building within the context of bringing about organizational change in a complex transportation system. This course is a graduate level course in the Master of Science in Transportation Management offered by the Lucas College of Business at San José State University, with support from the Mineta Transportation Institute.
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