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The COVID-19 virus pandemic has hit the world at a scale, pace and intensity like few events in living memory. In the course of merely a few weeks, countries across the world have almost ground to a halt, as governments attempt to fight the outbreak.
Industries and governments have all been hit in one way or another, mostly for worse not better. One of the most dramatic changes has been in the transport section, with an almost overnight, unprecedented reduction in travel. At present, most countries are in some form of lockdown, with journeys severely restricted and reduced to essential trips only. The demand-side impact on public and private transport organisations has been servere, and no-one knows when restrictions will lift or how quickly people will start traveling en masse once again.
In the short term, this once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe clearly represents bad news for MaaS, a service area still in its infancy that largely revolves around revenue generated by journeys.
“During this current global crisis, which we expect to last until the summer months of 2020 at least, some of the most immediate questions are how to guarantee the safety of those travelling and how to take care of the financial capacity of companies directly affected. Airlines, public transport companies and micro-mobility providers seem to be at the frontline and hit the most, facing an immediate need to adapt their operations to a sudden and complete fall of demand”, says Piia Karjalainen, Secretary General at MaaS Alliance.
Yet, although there will sadly be casualties amongst the myriad organisations that make up MaaS, as with any crisis there will also be opportunities for those strong and positive enough to emerge from the turmoil.
John Nuutinen, CEO, SkedGo, says “There is little doubt that the financial repercussions of this virus will deal a heavy blow to many businesses and MaaS will not be immune to this threat. After all, in an emerging market segment, such as MaaS, the thin margins that sustain most businesses will not last long without government support or subsidies. However, for those businesses that emerge, after this threat has subsided, the world of MaaS will have changed…and likely not entirely for the worse.”
In order to thrive – not just survive – in a new world already awakening from the COVID-19 nightmare, it will be important to better understand the opportunities available for MaaS, for it to be a key societal building block in the future.
1. A New Normal
Ultimately, for MaaS to succeed in positively transforming the way people travel for the benefit of society, a major transformation of historic attitudes and behaviours was always required. COVID-19 has not changed this. While many gains have already been made – driven by organisations actively pursuing the goals of MaaS – progress has been relatively slow and incremental at a global level. Now, inadvertently, COVID-19 has generated a rapid change in the way people feel, think and act, which could pave the way for bigger changes to come.
“Disruption is the mother of transport behaviour change. Not only must we not assume that we will pick up where we left off, but we must also actively work to shape the new behaviours which will form in future”, says Beate Kubitz, Independent Transport Consultant.
“The extreme and protracted nature of the measures introduced to fight the pandemic is forcing us to re-evaluate almost every aspect of how we live. In turn, this could break down the habits and attitudes that underpin so many decisions at all levels as to how, where, when and why we travel.” write Marcus Enoch, Professor in Transport Strategy, Loughborough University and James Warren, Senior Lecturer, Engineering and Innovation, The Open University.
“More clear than ever is the validity of the core promise of MaaS: multimodal mobility. The more options there are to move about, from public transport to taxis and rental services to healthy underbrush of micro mobility, the more resilient the community and the society is. The central idea of MaaS is a promise that we will get you where you need to go, but how we get you there is not fixed. At a time of an emergency or a disruption, the need for alternative modalities and maybe new alternative packages is accentuated”, writes Sampo Hietanen, CEO and Founder, MaaS Global.
This crisis has not simply meant a shut down of people travelling entirely. Rather, there are examples of individuals and companies using alternative forms of transport that they would previously not have considered. In the future, a willingness to look at alternatives may well increase.
Karjalainen says “we have seen some favourable changes, such as an increase in cycling and rapid take-off of teleworking habits that might bring along some long-lasting impact to our mobility behaviour. As a result, during the last few weeks, several studies have indicated improved air quality and less emissions in major metropolitan areas. In addition, people are relying more on local supply chains and communities. Times of isolation and physical distancing will build up even greater demand and joy of social interaction, when things get back to normal. This social aspect might gain in importance for our mobility system in the future. After the wave of pandemic, the world needs comfortable and smart mobility solutions, responding to users’ individual needs and prevailing circumstances more than ever before.”
It is not just transport users who are adapting and trialing different methods. Companies in the transport sector are reinventing their business models to reflect changing demands. Rideshare companies, for example, are expanding their roles as deliverers of food and goods, not just people.
“Ridehailing companies have pivoted as drivers shift from moving people to delivering food and products. As people stay home and can’t go out, they will be demanding more of their e-commerce and local food venues to deliver. Repurposing vehicles to be used as delivery service vehicles has also become commonplace among shared mobility providers”, writes Movmi on their blog.
2. Freedom of Space
One of the unintended consequences of global lockdowns is the sudden creation of space in what were previously busy, congested, crowded cities. Streets are empty, roads are quiet, pavements are less busy, public transport is almost deserted. Although people will likely return soon to the streets, it’s likely that for a long time overall numbers of people outside will drop.
This raises the topic of space, and how best it can be used, to higher levels of awareness amongst the public and policy decision makers. If there is a lot of space now, how best do we fill that space in the future? This could benefit a more diverse range of transport modes, with authorities prioritising more environmentally friendly, safety conscious or budget-minded modes. Indeed, cities are already offering more space to cycling, as a greener and more individual way of travelling.
“New York City is adding more space for cyclists, and micro mobility users, to support the sudden shift from public transportation to individual transport modes on their streets. Bogotá, Colombia has added 76 kilometers of cycle lanes practically overnight to accommodate more riders and social distancing. Cities such as Mexico City and London are seeing the benefits of many years spent growing their cycling networks, and are moving to make temporary cycling measures permanent. These relatively new individual methods of transportation have proven to be very successful in keeping the population safe during their commutes”, writes Movmi.
3. Tight Purse Strings
Companies, governments and individuals will doubtless all be impacted financially through loss of sales income, tax revenue and wages. Bankruptcies and unemployment are already sky-rocketing, with worse yet to come. This will put a great focus on budget management for everyone. No longer will the fastest or easiest journey be the best, for many people it will be the cheapest and MaaS has a vital role in providing optimising expenditure for total journeys.
As Kubitz points out, “There will be direct and indirect consequences of the crisis. At the same time as we are released to travel, the economic impact may well be being felt. People – many of whom have barely used their cars for months – may well look to shed the costs of car ownership as they feel the pinch. It’s hard to predict at present but this may well play out as increasing demand for forms of MaaS, smart transport and new mobility.”
“With transportation system-wide closures become more and more pervasive, MSP’s [Mobility Service Providers] are becoming the most reliable source of mobility for people and goods. MSPs have risen to the challenge not only increasing food delivery services, but reducing costs and creating invaluable partnerships with community organizations serving the most vulnerable. Public-private partnerships are instrumental to keep the fleet of mobility services running as effectively as possible.” writes Sandra Caballero, Project Specialist, Autonomous and Urban Mobility and Maya Ben Dror, Lead, Autonomous and Urban Mobility, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum.
Public-private partnerships have the potential to create new, more efficient and cost effective services and business models that will be warmly welcomed in the new era. This could be a positive consequence of a COVID-19 fueled change in perspective.
4. Safety in Numbers
In a future transport landscape, user safety will be of paramount importance, if companies and operators are to convince the public to start travelling again. In rethinking transport systems from a safety perspective, companies and governments have an opportunity to radically redesign how they operate in totality.
“In future, public transport operators will need to reassure users that they will not be infected. This means more cleaning, protective screens, improved air filters and less dense seating. The crisis may well also lead to transport providers revisiting how services are being delivered at the route and network level”, write Enoch & Warren.
This presents a huge opportunity for MaaS, in the provision of information that can help plan safe journeys. Detailed travel information, such as crowding levels, time-in-transit and even frequency of cleaning, can be used to profile the risk level at a journey level, to enable better decision making.
“I feel MaaS will become more important than ever. MaaS has always been about personal choice and preferences and it has emboldened the MaaS community to provide travelers with the data they need to be able to choose routes where they know the public transport will be less densely populated, or a route that involves more micro-mobility in the urban area”, says Andy Taylor, Strategy Director, Cubic Transportation Systems.
John Nuutinen, CEO, SkedGo says, “The behavioural change will drive development of new features, functionalities, technologies and business models, as MaaS enablers engineer solutions with a greater emphasis on risk aversion, the ability to mitigate legal liability and focus on business sustainability.”
5. Sharing is Caring
Already we can see a more organised effort to provide data in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. In the UK, for example, the Department of Transport and ITS UK work together to collect “data on traffic flow (count, not speed), traffic movements, parking, cycling and pedestrian movements” (…) “to help inform the Government’s policy response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”
There is also a potential consequence from the public wishing to travel less that encourages people to share information on the individual trips they are making, so people can pool activities together and share the load.
Jenny Milne, Strategic Development Director at JLM, draws conclusions from her personal experience “Since returning home to my rural area I have managed to find a delivery of veg and fruit but that is it. The car is still an essential for shopping and medication. We have a child with underlying health conditions at home so would prefer not to be venturing out to shops, so if we had a true MaaS offering (services and people) I would indeed benefit. However it comes down to information… if I knew who in my community was going where and when now, I could piggy back this for our provisions. I am hopeful this will come and that we won’t go back to what ‘normal’ was before, and I look forward to seeing a new ‘normal’ which involves more collaboration, information and less silos.”
Even before COVID-19, it was clear we needed operators and authorities to share more and better (standardised) data, for the benefit of all mobility stakeholders. Looking at transport through the lens of the pandemic, we can see an increased requirement for data – for example real-time and occupancy.
While it is clear that transport will see lasting changes as a result of COVID-19 – even after the immediate crisis has passed – as an agile way of thinking, MaaS is in a good position to adapt to this change. A significant component of MaaS is about personalisation, transparency and localisation, and it is these features that will help make MaaS the best tool to support future transport models.
“MaaS can and will be one of the solutions that cities and regions turn to now to deliver mobility for their citizens, we may not see subscription models in the near term, but I firmly believe that this time of reflection for cities and transit agencies will show that an integrated public and private mobility solution will be something the majority of people will welcome.” says Taylor.
Nuutinen adds, “Mobility-as-a-Service can provide unique value in a new world of social distancing, increased working from home, changed transport assets and commuters turning to increasingly varied and disparate transportation options. Therefore, it is important that we stay focused and positive. This is something we will get through together – it will make us stronger as an industry.”
Photo courtesy of Unsplash