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Pre-corona crisis, replacing private car rides with public transportation was encouraged by cities and local governments as much as possible. Today, the tone is very different: people are being advised to avoid using public shared mobility like buses and trains. The focus once again lies on individual transportation options like bikes and cars.
While the pandemic has led to the creation of new regulations and guidelines, the mobility industry has had to deal with a lack of new, relevant rules. In almost all communities, ticket inspections and the purchasing of a ticket directly from a bus driver have been made impossible by new hygienic barriers and fear of human contact. Some cities such as Lisbon or smaller communities in Austria are taking things a step further and are being more lenient with parking tickets or illegally parked vehicles, all as a reaction to the spreading of the virus.
Loosening regulations results in financial losses
These new changes have been implemented to keep the chain of contact within the population low, but also as a reaction to financial losses. In order to safeguard the workplaces of many in the public transportation sector, they need to be actively protected as much as possible, which means reducing social contact as much as possible. The pandemic has also led to employees missing work because they have to watch their kids, because they’re sick themselves or due to quarantine measures put in place for those who have been in contact with infected people. Restricting public transportation to fewer rides and doing away with ticket inspections and parking tickets of course leads to massive financial losses: public transportation companies are already losing 60 - 90% of their revenue, which is normally covered 50% by ticket sales, and costs are accumulating due to new hygienic rules that need to be adhered to. This leads to losses in city budgets and is a challenge that will need to be continually addressed long after the corona crisis is over.
In addition to financial issues, consumer behavior will have a stark influence on city revenue in the future as well. After the crisis, many citizens will probably still avoid using public transportation (aka “virus spreaders”) and prioritize personal mobility options. City budgets will remain tight, and necessary investments needed in the public transport sector will most likely not be made - even though at that point, we’ll have been ready for the mobility revolution to come for many years.
Challenges for cities in the “post-corona” era
What will this mean for cities post-corona? Will cities be able to react to user behavior changes and sustainable, environmentally friendly mobility practices at the same time, and in an era defined by tight budgets?
Many assume that users will “return” to private car ownership in full force in order to reduce contact with other people as much as possible. If that’s the case, smart parking systems could be implemented to manage parking lots effectively, generate income, protect employees and prevent unnecessary social contact in the long term. With the help of sensors, these systems identify available parking spaces, which users can see in an app. Users can also pay for parking tickets via the same app.
The amusingly named “Park and Joy” app from Deutsche Telekom, a widely popular app in Germany, lets users pay for parking online and navigates them directly to empty spots using GPS technology (in Hamburg, at least). Smart parking is an effective way for communities to continue managing their parking lots in ease and from the safety of their home offices. It’s important to note, however, that communities shouldn’t rely too much on one specific app or solution in order to prevent them from becoming dependent.
Private vehicle ownership: A renaissance for bikes and scooters
It will remain the duty of cities to continue to push for sustainable mobility after investments in the sector are down. The focus should (and probably will) be on individual vehicles that reduce contact but are environmentally friendly, such as bicycles and e-scooters. Particularly in the summer months, they’re a functional, safe alternative to both public transport and private car ownership. Increased usage of e-scooters and rental bicycles will give citizens the option of leaving their cars at home. Profits are almost guaranteed for cities, which stand to benefit financially from shared mobility options along with the companies themselves.
The crisis as a harbinger of long-term change
During this crisis, it’s of vital importance to think about long-term solutions that could prevent such a dangerous situation from occurring with the same force again in the future. How will cities be able to protect public workers on one hand without losing revenue on the other?
One thing is very clear: digitalizing mobility will no longer be seen as a side thought or something that’s “nice to have”, but rather an economic necessity. Mobile payments and digital ticket inspections, both of which have been successfully implemented in many European cities for years (Brussels, Paris and London, to name a few), could easily safeguard revenue made from ticket sales.
The corona crisis has shown us that the mobility industry still has to be adapted for changing times, particularly public transportation. The further development of innovative urban mobility solutions is therefore a necessary and realistic future scenario. This won’t be something that can wait, either: the financial and economic situation of cities during this crisis is already dictating otherwise. That’s why the corona crisis should be viewed as an excellent opportunity for mobility to finally digitalize.