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The Pandemic Will Mean Big, Lasting Changes for Urban Mobility

The Shared Mobility Summit zeroed in on all the many ways urban mobility has been rocked by the novel coronavirus. The consensus among experts seems to be that the crisis will force long-term changes.

Flexible routes and schedules, pandemic planning and more significant relationships with private-sector mobility operations could be some of the lasting effects the coronavirus crisis has on public transit.

Moving forward, experts say the novel coronavirus will likely prompt longer-term design changes to transit systems, as well as more immediate stop-gap efforts once these systems begin to resume more normal service routines.

These impacts were the topic of discussion during an online Shared Mobility Summit panel discussion Wednesday. 

“We’ll likely see mask requirements on a lot of systems for the next year or so. We’ll start seeing hand sanitizers placed at train stations and busy bus stops. Longer-term, agency planning is just going to have to take pandemics into mind,” said Chris Van Eyken, a senior associate at TransitCenter. “Just as post-[Hurricane] Sandy, a lot of agencies started to adopt hurricane plans. That will mean changing things about our bus and train design to make sure that they are less likely to be vectors for transmissions.”

Van Eyken also pointed out that air-handling equipment on transit vehicles may have to be redesigned so the systems are not simply recycling air, but introducing fresh air into vehicle cabins. New technologies, like using UV lights to disinfect buses and trains, are already being deployed by New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), he said. 

“I think this is a time for trying a lot of different things,” Van Eyken continued, as he and other experts in public transit pointed out ways both big and small transit and urban mobility will evolve to meet new needs and expectations in a post-pandemic world.

But, it’s not just the public transit space getting shaken up by the COVID-19 crisis and the resultant economic meltdown. The Associated Press reported a move by Uber this week to eliminate 3,700 full-time workers, or 14 percent of the ride-hailing company’s workforce.

Chris Pangilinan, head of global policies for public transportation at Uber, said companies need to consider what makes their operations work by focusing on the cities and geographies that contribute to their business, without abandoning the smaller markets. 

“I think the beauty of the TNC-style service is that, where there’s demand is where drivers will go to get earnings,” said Pangilinan.

Micro-mobility, like rent-to-ride bikes and scooters, have also faced sharp declines in ridership and profits. Many operators have still not redeployed the vehicles in areas where service was reduced or stopped altogether. And whether they can pivot toward a financially viable mobility model is still to be seen.

“... I don’t know that the business model is super viable,” said Kimberly Lucas, assistant director of the department of mobility and infrastructure in Pittsburgh, pointing out less-than-successful dockless bike-share programs where bikes only stayed on the scene for a few months.

Micro-mobility is much like other forms of public transportation, said Lucas, and tends to be a money-loser. However, this may be the time to “make the case” for shared, micro-mobility.

“I think it’s a lot easier to wash your hands after taking an outdoor ride on one vehicle by yourself, than it is to kind of wrap your head around what it’s like to be in a shared, contained space,” she added.

Bird, a wide-reaching e-scooter operator in dozens of cities, plans to redeploy its devices in the near future. 

"Working in close partnership with city and health-care officials, we are ramping up our service in communities in a way that adheres to the specific guidelines and recommendations of each particular city," Rebecca Hahn, chief corporate responsibility officer at Bird, told Government Technology. "As a result, our service will vary from market to market but will be focused first and foremost on safety and providing a sustainable alternative to car trips ”

If more lasting partnerships between transit and micro-mobility are what’s needed in a post-COVID-19 world, there may be a more immediate need for relationship repair.

“None of them [scooter operators] have come through as useful partners, at least in my city. Three of our four scooter operators just closed up shop,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), speaking during a Tuesday session.

“At a time when all of these private companies should be demonstrating their value, they’re actually fighting for their own financial lives and therefore prioritizing the convenience of the privileged over the needs of cities and their most vulnerable travelers,” Tumlin argued. “The private mobility space has got a lot of work to do, to rebuild relationships with cities, and get people to see them as actually a part of a solution, rather than just a mechanism for some potential profit in the future.”

Since much of the country abruptly shut down in mid-March, Americans have had an unusual taste of relatively car-free streets, given to other uses like biking and walking. How long, or if, this reprieve lasts will be one of the many considerations city leaders will gradually consider as the recovery unfolds.

“There will not be an immediate end to the pandemic,” said Lucas. “There are going to be so many lasting effects."

“It’s a really interesting time because so many things are happening all at once,” she continued. “The commute has changed. Because a lot of people aren’t making a commute.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.