The Renaissance of Public Transport?

Transportation Planning

We already understand that 2020 is a watershed moment for the transport industry, yet outcomes will continue to take shape well into next year. Precisely how our post-pandemic preferences will align with the available transportation options is yet to be seen.

We believe that public transport will not only continue to be the beating heart of cities and towns across the world, but has a chance to emerge stronger from the current struggle. It starts with embracing the fact that our travel needs have never really been static, and the current acceleration of change is just that. Our co-founder and Head of Strategy, Georg Polzer, shares his thoughts.

COVID-19 has essentially ripped up the rule book for the transportation sector. Dependent on old models of a different time, transport planners and operators trying to plan for tomorrow’s world might feel like they’re building the future blindfolded. Questions abound.

What will be the long-term repercussions of the pandemic on whether and how people travel? Will the new mobility services starting to take root in our cities suffer as a consequence of our desire to socially distance? Do the transportation infrastructure projects planned many moons ago still make sense, given the abrupt change in our travel habits?

Pre-COVID, we believed that two overarching trends were coming together to provide an answer to our emerging travel needs: a renewed interest in public transport as a cheap, eco-conscious choice; and a rise of micro-mobility providers addressing the need in the first/last mile connectivity.

Will the impact of lockdowns and changing perceptions of what’s safe and desirable when it comes to travel stall progress, or even completely change the course? While the future may seem uncertain, a clue to how the transport industry can move forward lies in understanding precisely what’s happening right now.

The return of public transport

The decade before COVID was a period of rebirth for public transport. Almost three-quarters of Europeans now live in urban areas. Motivated by financial, ecological, and societal factors, people, especially younger generations, have increasingly deserted cars in favor of public transport, supported by on-demand options.

The outcome, until recently, was an uptake in the usage of public transport. Germany’s total number of public transport journeys rose by almost 10% between 2004 and 2019. This came at a time when the German population was falling. In the UK too, public transport was rising slowly, while car usage remained about the same year-on-year.

From Amsterdam and Birmingham to Helsinki and Paris, European cities were announcing ambitious plans to reclaim their roads from cars and turn streets over to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport solutions.

Along came the pandemic

The impact of COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for all aspects of the transportation industry. By the first week of April, year-on-year daily public transport usage was down 81% in France, 66% in the UK, and 53% in Germany. The use of shared mobility options, from ride-hailing and taxis to public transit and bike-share schemes, also unsurprisingly nosedived.

Our transportation customers’ focus over the past few months has been on understanding the pandemic’s immediate impact on people’s mobility in order to assess the safety of their services, keep their stakeholders informed, and minimize the impact on their operations. However, accounting for the changes in how people travel on an ongoing basis has only just begun.

What will be the medium to long-term impacts of the disruption? Will our newly adopted travel patterns stick, and will our sensitivity to crowds drive our decisions when it comes to getting from A to B? None of these can be answered by looking at past behaviors.

The traditional model of using years-old surveys and physical counters to make decisions about what transportation infrastructure to build and which services to run is no longer fit for purpose.”

Teralytics co-founder and Head of Strategy

Both transportation planners and operators need mobility insights that shed light on population-level trends. In order to start to understand COVID’s long-term impact on your business, you need to account for both the short-term time of day/week fluctuations, as well as the overall trajectory over the coming months.

The future of cities

The pandemic is likely to have a significant impact on where many of us prefer to live, and how we choose to work.

In the pre-COVID world, around one-fifth of employees in progressive European countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden worked from home ‘at least several times a month’. By April 2020, around 50% of all employees in those countries were working from home, with other countries not far behind.

Many have enjoyed the experience. Half of British workers cite the ability to structure their schedules more flexibly as the primary draw, while 43% of employees would like to do away with commuting time. It remains to be seen how many people choose to work from home permanently, or at least partially. With companies announcing permanent working from home policies, or delaying return to the office until well into 2021, we will likely see a sea change in how many of us will choose to work. With that, decisions about where to live are likely to change, too. Remote work policies and increased demand for long-distance travel options will have a significant impact on transportation planning and the provision of mobility services.

The opportunity for change

Times of sweeping industry change can often catalyze better outcomes.

It may not feel like it right now, but the evolving changes in people’s travel preferences in the post-COVID world provide a new opportunity to deliver seamless public transport that works for everyone.”

Teralytics co-founder and Head of Strategy

Expedite dynamic scheduling

Traditionally, demand for public transportation during the morning and evening rush hours can be as much as five times greater than at midday. With people now having more flexible working schedules, public transport operators will likely need to spread their services more evenly throughout the day.

Public transit schedules tend to be a compromise between fleet optimization and actual customer needs. Most bus services, for example, stop at a consensus place at certain set times. With social distancing and convenience now front-of-mind for people everywhere, this economic model seems no longer fit for purpose.

Analyzing current mobility behaviours sheds light on demand and people’s preferences in a way that can help make dynamic scheduling the pathway to profitability for public transportation services. Teralytics works with some of the most prominent public transit operators in the world to help them better serve their passengers’ needs.

Double down on first/last mile connectivity

Urban areas tend to take up most of the focus of public transport operators. As our relationship with cities evolves and more of us choose to live outside them, connectivity to suburbs and between cities should come to the fore.

In the UK for example, while three-quarters of Londoners travel to work by public transport or bike, more than three-quarters of workers in the rest of the country commute by car.

One way to address this is through reducing fares. In Germany, the national government has reduced sales tax on rail fares, essentially providing a 10% cut on all rail journeys longer than around 50km. But cost isn’t the only factor.

“The lack of connectivity in the first and last miles is often the biggest blocker for increased public transit usage,” says Polzer. “And while first/last mile connectivity has come into focus recently, seamless integration of services will be imperative in the post-COVID world.”

Private mobility-on-demand services can address some of these challenges, providing travelers with convenience and flexibility. But it’s neither reasonable nor realistic to expect the private sector to fill this gap completely.

Embrace digital tools for decision-making

Digitizing public transport has shown promising progress in the past few years, but change has been slow. COVID has placed an increased emphasis on reducing interactions between transport staff and travelers. It is clear that transport service providers must allow their customers to buy tickets, pay fares and check-in for travel using contactless technology.

However, digitization cannot stop there. Analogue tools such as years-old surveys and roadside clickers can’t provide the kind of insight into everyone’s travel needs that’s required to ensure public transport can both serve more people and more profitably so.

By embracing up-to-date, dynamic mobility insights, public transit operators can better see where savings can be made and where opportunities exist, creating a network of services that is ultimately smarter and less expensive to operate.

“Decisions about which services to run where and what infrastructure to build can no longer take years to arrive at,” says Polzer. “The means and frequency of how data on people’s changing travel behaviors is procured and acted on needs a rethink.”

2015 study looked at the travel habits of London commuters before, during, and after a 2014 strike that left several underground stations closed for three days. Researchers discovered that 5% of passengers forced to change their regular itinerary due to the strike never went back to their former route once it ended. All it took was a relatively small nudge to change their behaviors forever.

We already understand that 2020 is a watershed moment for the transport industry. Precisely how our post-pandemic preferences will align with the available transportation options is yet to be seen. It’s a challenge that can only be solved by looking forward, rather than to the past. People’s travel behaviors are changing. Let’s seize it as an opportunity.

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