Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Joël Hazan, a managing director and partner of Boston Consulting Group (BCG); Pierre-François Marteau, a project leader at BCG; and Benjamin Fassenot, a consultant at BCG.
The current coronavirus pandemic has locked down nearly 4 billion people globally and has paralyzed most of the world's largest cities. The near standstill in which we find ourselves today is an unprecedented situation in the recent history of transport. Like any experience, we have to analyze the results and learn the necessary lessons.
The lockdown (or the social distancing alternative in some parts of the world) reminds us of the fundamental link between mobility, socio-economic development and the environment. For instance, while lockdowns occur and the GDPs of countries suffer, some areas are seeing a vast improvement in air quality.
Coronavirus gives us a masterclass: mobility of people drives wealth, with some negative externalities on our environment. After this crisis, urban mobility habits will likely be drastically changed around the globe.
Remote working, cycling may change mobility for good
Two trends with positive effects for the performance of mobility systems and for the environment could emerge: remote working and cycling.
The lockdown has forced many companies to develop systems for employees to work from home. After a short period of adaptation, employees who can work remotely are getting used to it and, with the pre-requisite of adapted tools and setup, are starting to experience what the Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom demonstrated: when possible, there is no productivity loss when working from home.
Even in a country like Japan where there is a strong culture of working long office hours, and where the "home-office days" set up in 2017 by the government to reduce congestion only had an 8.5% penetration rate, employees are finally starting to enjoy working from home. This uptake of working remotely will have a positive impact on congestion and pollution and positive effects could be measured just before the full lockdown.
On March 11, in the San Francisco Bay Area, across the Dumbarton Bridge linking East Bay commuters to Silicon Valley, the traffic was down 18% during rush hours compared to the previous week thanks to a number of large tech companies asking their employees to work from home. We could dream of a world where time lost in traffic jams in single-occupancy cars turns into productive work at home and family time.
The second positive effect is that cycling could dramatically increase. With more urban commuters afraid of taking public transport or hailing a cab or TNC, cycling has become a safe and healthy option.
Large American cities like New York, Seattle and Chicago hae experienced huge increases in bike ridership. In New York, on large streets, bike traffic increased by 50% in March compared to the previous year. The same effect is to be monitored in post-crisis China. The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy recently analyzed that many commuters in Guangzhou switched from transit to cycling and that the Beijing bike sharing systems saw a user increase of roughly 150%.
Public transit and shared mobility will be heavily challenged
These two positive effects should not hide the most probable outcome of the coronavirus crisis for urban mobility: an explosion of individual car trips. Social distancing is silently becoming the norm, and once full lockdown is over, public transit will most likely experience a large decrease in ridership due to health concerns.
Current trends in China give us a glimpse into this probable future. Congestion levels in Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen have already almost reached the historic levels of 2019, when metro passenger volumes are still very low (roughly -60% vs. 2019 levels). In Beijing, metro ridership dropped from a 26% modal share to a 14% modal share.
Furthermore, people will probably be very reluctant to carpool or to use shared vehicles such as bikes or e-scooters without increased sanitary measures. This impact will be even stronger with governments and public authorities prioritizing initiatives other than investing in public transportation in order to recover from the unprecedented economic crisis that is to come, likely deploying large recovery plans to help the automotive industry bounce back, which will in turn put more vehicles on our roads.
In China, some local governments have already announced measures in this direction: subsidies for new car purchases, limitations on the number of new licenses lifted. Dense and developed cities relying heavily on public transit and shared mobility will be the most impacted and could see, without any intervention from public authorities, congestion dramatically increase and productivity drop.
Urban mobility industry will be reshaped
Both the current immobility and the expected future changes in transportation preferences will hit the urban mobility industry very hard. Ride-hailing companies have drastically reduced their number of rides while micromobility operators have shut down in many cities. Bird recently slashed more than 400 employees in a two-minute video call.
Post-lockdown, shared mobility operators will probably face strong ridership issues. City residents will undoubtedly prefer walking instead of putting their hands on a shared e-scooter or a shared bike. Investments in the mobility field will probably slow down, and the time where car manufacturers invested billions of dollars in supporting existing operators or to launch their own service is probably over as survival of their core activities becomes top priority.
Small startups will be at risk, and especially the ones planning on a new round of fundraising. We can thus expect the mobility market to pursue its consolidation with larger and more prosperous players overcoming the crisis and being the winners of this episode. All these upcoming trends will result in less innovation and fewer new mobility services.
Preventing a long-term supremacy of solo car users
The forecasted scenario of the urban mobility landscape should ultimately lead to a drastic increase of solo-use of cars in cities, and thus a sharp increase in congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Mobility operators and public authorities need to anticipate this shift and act before urban transportation locks us down again.
Mobility operators do have some keys to maintain their ridership. Sanitary measures should be taken, and communication should be reinforced when it’s safe to commute with public transit or shared mobility options. Micromobility company Wheels recently announced that it will deploy e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers. Such innovations will help conserve riders.
While new sanitary rules may take time to be enforced, operators must uphold their responsibilities and invest in this new field of innovation. Sharing operators should think about launching subscription programs and allow rentals of scooters and bikes for half a day, a full day or a week. The Uber grading system could also be leveraged to reinforce trust in sanitary safety (e.g. giving 5 stars to drivers / riders wearing a mask). Such measures could also help maintain ridership.
But, to prevent a supremacy of the solo use of cars, cities and public authorities have to take action. The list of public policies to be implemented is long and differ between city archetypes. In cities with a high share of public transport, the focus should be reassuring people that it’s safe to use metros and buses again via a strong hygiene plan and massive communication.
In city centers, the development of bike lanes should be accelerated in order to reshape streets and squares to reduce the car footprint. Congestion pricing should be investigated sooner rather than later to diminish the attractiveness of the solo use of cars. In cities where cars were already the key component of the commuting landscape (Los Angeles, for example), congestion pricing should also be studied to promote carpooling, and working from home should be encouraged (if necessary, via tax incentives). It will also be critical that governments channel their support for the revival of car manufacturers into encouraging low-carbon vehicles.
Coming out of this crisis, it will be necessary to act as quickly as possible. The efforts of the last decade and the hopes of the next are at stake. If we fail, the economic power of cities could be remembered in history books as a 20th-century concept, with the 21st century really starting now.