By Rebecca Sands, Content & Project Manager, Autonomy & The Urban Mobility Company

Click here to watch a recording of Commuting with COVID-19: Keeping you Safe With Data

Last week the Urban Mobility Company held our first virtual workshop in partnership with Moovit on the impact that the COVID-19 crisis is having on public transportation (view the recording here), and how operators can guarantee a safe and efficient rider experience as cities begin to come out of lockdown. The workshop featured mobility experts from both the public and private sectors and included: Alon Shantzer, VP of International Sales at Moovit, Anna Craciun, Lead Innovation officer at Transport for Greater Manchester, Pedro Homem de Gouveia, Senior Policy & Project Manager at POLIS, and Philippe Bois, Group Performance Director at Keolis. UMCo’s CEO Ross Douglas moderated the discussion, which explored the range of issues and opportunities that PTOs and cities are now facing. Here are the workshop’s 5 key takeaways.

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1. Now is the time to flatten peak demand

Lightening the commuter load during peak hours has always been a challenge for public transit operators, as many systems were already running at over-capacity before the pandemic began. A variety of incentives have been tried in the past to encourage riders to reduce stress on systems – most notably through peak and off-peak pricing schemes – but one of the main, new challenges has been to impart just how serious the need to flatten the commuter curve is in a pandemic. In Manchester, local authorities are working with startups and SMEs in the area to use these actors’ particular solutions to better manage the system. In Lyon, Keolis has been collaborating with large corporates to help them understand peak commuting data so that they can then modify work structures and/or requirements to limit their own employees’ impact on the load. Moovit, in some areas where it operates, has offered users an on-demand option with real-time updates and information to help relieve pressure on public transit systems during peak times. While each local context requires a tailored response to the specific needs and conditions of the community, what is universal is that the use of relevant data will help relate commuter patterns with other appropriate factors to assist in flattening peak demand.

2. Use data to inform intermodality and collaboration

Another way that data will play an essential role in flattening the commuter curve is in the shift to multimodal options for users. After a drastic fall in usage (90% of this workshop’s participants said they had stopped using public transport since the pandemic began), public transit ridership has slowly begun to restart, allowing operators to adjust accordingly. While it may be too early to tell, key structural trends suggest that public transportation will continue to be the most economical option for many users, and that while PTOs may lose the funds to increase capacity, they will probably continue to serve a growing demand in the long-term. This means that the door for collaboration with other modalities is wide open, and shared operators must step up to create partnerships in order to give public transport the opportunity to recover financially as they maintain social distancing measures on their systems. Data will greatly aid in understanding how people move and use public transport, so that the right multimodal, on-demand options can be made available at the right place at the right time.

3. Social demographics are informing traffic flows

Many cities are seeing a shift in modality with the reduction in public transport ridership – particularly towards the use of micromobility. Such trends and the adoption of new modalities can say a lot about the social demographics of an area, what existing modalities are available, and what needs to become available in order to best serve the public. For example, if the social demographics of a certain area show many schools and the transport routes usually serving them, authorities can take this information and link it to traffic flows. This allows the findings to be integrated into larger city programs such as re-routing these specific routes to help essential workers while schools are not in session.

4. Communication is Key

In ensuring that riders remain safe, respectful, and informed under very serious circumstances, all mobility actors – especially PTOs and city authorities – need to maintain strong channels of communication with users. This means that authorities must prioritise information and education campaigns to inform best practices for riders, as well as clearly communicate on their own plans. In times of crisis, passengers must be able to trust transport providers, so for Keolis, actively engaging in visible, stringent hygiene and having employees available to assist users in adopting social distancing and other safe practices has helped to communicate a clear message of collaboration and support. Showing riders what you are doing as a PTO will encourage trust in the system and in public transport as it works to recover. Communicating directly with users on information, routes, and peak load will also result in a more efficient and better experience.

5. COVID-19 could be the catalyst for a quicker adoption of autonomous vehicles

What we have seen in the short-term is that quicker and easier measures, like additional bike lanes, have been prioritised over autonomous vehicle development. This of course makes sense, as cycling infrastructure can literally be set-up overnight. But as a potentially safer “contactless” solution to meet extra ridership demand, autonomous vehicle development could perhaps take a cue from the quick adoption of additional cycling infrastructure. This is what Transport for Greater Manchester is trying to achieve, by working in the immediate term with companies like Waze, Humanising Autonomy, and Vivacity to understand and implement existing technology to the best of their ability. More, as multimodality is prioritised and roads and cities are designed less and less for single car ownership, this paves the way for the quicker development of autonomous vehicles.

As AVs could further assist in first-mile access to public transport and help reduce driving speeds, parking spaces, and other private car infrastructure in cities, autonomous vehicles have the potential to feed-in well to an intermodal future. Indeed, 48% of workshop respondents think that the COVID-19 crisis will have a positive result on the development and implementation of autonomous technologies. Eliminating car infrastructure encourages new ways of thinking, so once autonomous vehicles enter the market, COVID-19 and social distancing will probably result in a very quick adoption of what Alon Shantzer details as one of Moovit’s main objectives in being acquired by Intel: accelerating autonomous technology as a part of the intermodal mix.

It is clear that public transit operators and cities have many challenges on the horizon, with plenty that still remain to be seen in the medium to long-term. However, perhaps the most crucial principle that this virtual workshop sought to reinforce is how far data can go in aiding public transit and future planning. The discussion showed it was imperative to have accurate data in most cases in order to make the right informed decisions, and in another poll asking participants which data-driven solutions could be most useful in flattening the ridership curve, equal responses ranged from more on-demand options, policies promoting teleworking, apps for tracing, and more dynamic peak pricing schemes.

Click here to watch a recording of Commuting with COVID-19: Keeping you Safe With Data.