What COVID-19 taught us about the need for greener transport – a MaaS perspective

The coronavirus pandemic calls for a paradigm shift. New thinking that moves us away from polluting transport towards cleaner, greener alternatives, including active travel. The latter has the added benefit of being good for our health – particularly if we’re not ingesting vehicle fumes.

Right now we have an opportunity to reconsider how we can improve business, mobility and individual lives in ways that are more sustainable. Moving to environmentally friendly transport modes can have a significant positive impact on the wellbeing of communities and wildlife as well as businesses.

From conserving energy and lowering transport costs to improving efficiency and creating new business models, it’s time to do things differently. The current situation has provided a glimpse of what’s possible – and the role that Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) can play in supporting much-needed change.

Fewer journeys significantly reduce air pollution

The need to reduce air pollution is nothing new but it’s never been so clear than with the measures that have been taken to combat COVID-19. In an article for the World Economic Forum, Marco Hernandez, a data visualisation developer at Reuters Graphics, shared heat maps which highlight the degree to which air quality has improved due to less industrial activity and travel.

Using data from NASA’s Global Modeling and Data Assimilation team, he showed a general fall in PM2.5 nitrates – particles that can enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing strokes, heart disease and cancer. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) decreased, which among other things, is emitted from vehicle exhausts.

Countries across the globe have experienced benefits such as the industrial areas of Italy and China, and cities like New Delhi in India (The Guardian). The European Environment Agency is monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on air pollution, the output of which is updated on its website.

Electric cars and greener transport like bikes could help to improve air quality and encourage people away from private single-occupancy car use, particularly once the COVID-19 situation is fully under control. Aggregating all of these modes into a MaaS app will make mixed and multimodal journeys much more convenient to plan. SkedGo has done exactly this in a project with Leicester City Council recently.

Adoption of greener transport needs to accelerate

Regulation is one option to encourage greater accountability both in the mobility sector and how we each choose to travel including road charges and low emission zones – something which Zuzana Púčiková, head of EU public policy for Uber, touches on in her article for SkedGo’s Women in MaaS series.

Swift action must be taken, employing both carrot and stick to influence behaviour and the speed at which we move to greener transport. Alongside taxation, financial incentives could help organisations and individuals make the transition.

European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) noted in May 2019 that 24 of the 28 EU states had stimulus packages for electric cars, with most countries offering tax reductions or exemptions. However, ACEA says that only ‘12 EU member states offer bonus payments or premiums to buyers’. There’s still a way to go.

However, the transport sector is constantly reinventing itself with new business models thanks to advances in technology, innovation and changing attitudes. The ubiquitous mobile device gets information into the hands of users faster and allows for the customisation of preferences. Optimising MaaS apps for sustainable travel could help raise awareness of available options with the ability to personalise results based on, for example, CO2 emissions (something that our own technology allows).

Incentives and gamification could encourage travellers to use greener transport in return for points, cashback, offers or being able to track their carbon emissions from journeys. Seeing the impact of travel on the environment allows travellers to experience first-hand the result of their choices. If this is married with financial rewards it could help to bring more people onside.

Everyone benefits from greener travel, MaaS and alternative working practices

The public sector, businesses and citizens all stand to reap the rewards of embracing more sustainable ways of moving around. Reducing environmental impact is good for any organisation’s brand. Obviously, the fallout from the pandemic will focus attention on financial savings too. Allowing employees to work from home regularly, where possible, is one way to reduce reliance on costly office space.

Mobility managers and HR professionals will also want to cut travel costs and reflect on the use of company vehicles. MaaS can support organisations with such policy changes. theHRDIRECTOR highlights the total cost of mobility, shared vehicle ownership, and corporate social responsibility opportunities could be reduced by addressing the way employees move around. This could include access to cycle sheds and shower facilities, along with data on the best cycle lanes and routes using a MaaS app – and even integrating with an organisation’s own shuttle buses.

As the public sector and transit providers move to sustainable vehicles – and once social distancing is relaxed – mass transport will remain the most environmentally-friendly form of travel, alongside active travel. Before the pandemic, the European electric bus market tripled in size in 2019, according to Sustainable Bus. Stating forecasts from Interact Analysis, the site reported that “approximately 40% of new city buses registered in Europe in 2025 will be battery-electric”.

For individuals, the ability to move around conveniently without the need for a private car could save them considerable money on running and repair costs depending on their circumstances. Being able to plan multiple legs of a journey, across different modes of transport in one single payment – all within a MaaS app – could provide the freedom and flexibility they need without the responsibility of vehicle ownership.

Nature rebounds when given the chance; how we travel needs to respect this

Air pollution is most often referred to when we consider the impact of transport on the environment. However, we also have to think about our waters and oceans, which are critical to the natural habitat.

Brandon Orr, a certified broadcast meteorologist at WPLG in Miami, Florida, posted a video taken in the centre of Venice. It shows marine life in the canals thanks to low tide and low traffic – a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Humanist and entrepreneur, Rouzbeh Pirouz took to Twitter to comment, “Dolphins have reappeared on the Mallorcan coast in Spain. #Corona can teach us how to live and work in a manner that is more environmentally sustainable and will have also helped humanity if those lessons are learned, remembered and maintained when the virus has been eradicated.”

Re-emerging wildlife, unhampered by human disturbance, is a positive ‘side effect’ – and we need to ensure that our lives are more sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment. It’s unfortunate that it takes something like COVID-19 to bring this to the surface. As Gina McCarthy, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, highlights in The Guardian, “This is just a disaster that pointed out the underlying challenges we face. It’s not something to celebrate.”

An opportunity for an environmental reboot

The fact is, we shouldn’t ‘revert back to normal’ once this pandemic is over. Former Special Representative for Climate Change and UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King said in The Independent that, “Pollution is accountable for around 7 million deaths globally and if we take action on climate change we will be taking action on the environment and pollution.”

The European Green Deal wants to make Europe ‘the first climate-neutral continent’. This includes investment in environmentally-friendly technologies such as cleaner, cheaper and healthier public and private transport options. After all, transport accounts for a quarter of the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions with road vehicles making up for nearly three-quarters of transport emissions. The Green Deal aims to see a 90% reduction by 2050 through its sustainable mobility commitments.

For its part, MaaS has a vital role to play in all of this, automating the process of planning, purchasing etickets (so no paper waste) and accessing multimodal conventional and alternative forms of transport and travel. This could also include the locations of recharging points as well as micromobility for that all-important first and last mile.

The need for systemic change

We’ve seen just how quick countries can act when dealing with a pandemic like COVID-19. Of course, the road ahead may not be smooth but we’ve shown we can hasten change where needed. Simone Abram, a professor within the anthropology department at Durham University and Co-Director of Durham Energy Institute, wants us all to learn lessons from this experience: “As flights are cancelled and significant numbers of people work from home, there’s less travel, and so fewer CO₂ emissions. Is it possible to ensure that some things don’t go back to the way they were?”

This is a major opportunity for systemic change. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on 22 April 2020; the fact the earth is healing is bittersweet given the situation we find ourselves in. However, this is a human problem and we urgently need to reflect on the global impact of our travel choices. We’ve proven we can respond to a world-wide crisis at speed. Let’s do the same for the environment and create a transport system that is robust and adaptable to serve the long-term sustainable future of travel.

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