Seven months after the United States declared COVID-19 a national health emergency, subway ridership across the country remains 36% below last year’s level. According to Apple Mobility Trends (an imperfect, but commonly accepted measure of commuters’ intentions) public-transport ridership around the globe remains deeply depressed due to fears of contagion. Despite evidence from world capitals that passengers aren’t super-spreaders so long as they wear masks and remain silent, urban residents are still hesitant to return to public transport—and many of them don’t see the necessity to commute when downtowns have become ghost towns in an era of work-from-anywhere.
Yet it remains imperative for cities to rebuild trust in public transport—their very survival depends on it. Post-COVID gridlock, soaring carbon emissions, and homes far removed from jobs that can’t be performed via Zoom are all likely consequences if the public transport system doesn’t recover. This underscores why it is the backbone of urban areas.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE AROUND RISK
The first step, paradoxically, has been to nudge residents toward walking, cycling, and “micromobility“—modes that are naturally socially distanced. “The winner of the pandemic is the bicycle,” says Michael Frankenberg, CEO of Hacon, a mobility software company. “Many cities have been very agile in repurposing streets for pop-up cycling lanes.” The United Kingdom plans to invest $2.57 billion to make many of those changes permanent, while the city of Bogotá, Colombia, aims to increase the share of bicycle trips from 7% to half of all commutes. “The bike is not necessarily a competitor to public transport,” Frankenberg adds. “Bike and public transport can complement each other in a very efficient way. Cycling is a great way to cover the first or last mile of a trip, but it’s not always suitable for longer commutes.”
The next and more difficult task is to rebut the narrative that public transport is inherently risky. This will require strong communication and orchestration skills—at once hammering it into passengers’ heads to wear a mask and socially distance on trains and platforms, while employing all the digital tools at their disposal to enforce them. “Resilience is really prediction,” says Johannes Emmelheinz, CEO of Siemens mobility customer services. By this, he means the ability to predict passenger demand for any particular mode (or lack thereof) at any particular node in the system. With that granular level of data and analysis in hand, he argues, transport operators can balance demand, in turn, by nudging subway riders onto buses or bicycles as needed.
For example, using passenger loading data—as developed and implemented by Siemens Mobility for Thameslink operator Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) in the U.K.—can help operators determine whether a carriage is too full to maintain social distancing and assess demand on specific routes to help with timetabling. Likewise, security cameras can be digitally retrofitted with analytics to calculate whether a platform is too crowded. London is applying the same techniques to pedestrians and busy intersections. “One of the things I’ve had many discussions about is the sequencing of traffic over pedestrians,” says Will Wilson, CEO of Siemens Mobility Limited. “You want to prioritize your pedestrians to be able to keep moving. Someone in a car might be very slow, but they are in a protected bubble, effectively.” Transport for London, the agency that oversees the capital’s transportation system, has addressed this by retiming lights and signals to synchronize longer crossings.
Another way to predict ridership is by analyzing trip planner requests and/or ticket purchases with big data technologies and self-learning algorithms. The German transport association RMV, operating in and around Frankfurt, implemented such a service on its mobile website (m.rmv.de) in September. For connections showing occupancy predictions as “too high,” the trip planner will suggest alternative routings with a lower estimated passenger count.
With these measures in place, transport authorities will have more time to invest in sanitizing trains and buses, upgrading their air-filtration systems, and repainting them in virus-resistant coatings without having to take entire lines or even the whole system out of service as in New York. “Predictive maintenance results in up to 100% system availability, which in times of crisis—such as the Covid-19 pandemic—allows for a stable operation without disruption,” Emmelheinz says.
RETHINKING THE RELATIONSHIP WITH USERS
As cities begin to reopen following the immediate crisis, operators should use the opportunity to rethink their relationship with their customers. Contactless payment systems—already widespread in Europe and slowly rolling out in the States—will become the norm for sanitary reasons as well as ease of use. Digitalization opens up new opportunities to enhance the passenger experience, making travel seamless and convenient. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is on the rise: New apps allow passengers to plan, book, and pay for their trips in one go. Ideally, they even integrate different modes of transportation—bicycles, scooters, car-sharing, and public transport—such as the ones already available in Zurich (ZüriMobil), Copenhagen (MinRejseplan), and Luxembourg (mobiliteit.lu).
They might also include inter-city rail, as Vienna’s SMILE pilot did in partnership with Austrian Federal railways. Although European rail networks have suffered drops in passenger numbers nearly as steep as public transport, they are poised to rebound faster than air travel due to a greater perception of safety and mounting unease with the carbon footprint of flight. “We’re seeing a bit of a renaissance for a whole raft of reasons—particularly night trains, with the Austrians leading the way,” says Mark Smith, host of the train travel site Seat61.com. The opportunities for seamless booking, payment, and wayfinding—from home to station to another city or even nation—are about to become more expansive.
“This kind of easy, intermodal travel will become more and more important,” Frankenberg says. Another advantage of digital travel companions: They enable transport agencies to connect directly with their customers. The apps can be used to remind passengers of safety measures, notify them of disturbances, or inform them about C19-optimized routing. “In the end,” Frankenberg says, “the customer needs comprehensive information to navigate the jungle of public transport.”
The ongoing change in mobility patterns will have profound implications for cities and riders alike. Just as Uber’s not-so-secret weapon is the treasure trove of data it collects, transit agencies armed with similar information about travel patterns, pricing, and more will be able to reshape their route networks, stations, and vehicle fleets to better adapt to a post-pandemic world.