We’ve just been given the best opportunity to rethink mobility in decades. Let’s use it.

Fewer commutes. More electric cars. Fewer train journeys. More cycle lanes. A scooter boom. Covid-19 is forcing us to rethink how we travel – and that's a huge opportunity to reshape our lives – and to create new businesses.

Human mobility has taken a strange turn. Once-packed trains now run near-empty. The few individuals on them, eye each other warily over their masks. Bustling airports now feel empty, and handfuls of travellers pass through gates designed for so many more.

The steady development in human transportation has been halted by a virus, and we’re still working through the consequences. For years, we’ve been encouraged out of our cars and into public transport for environmental reasons. Now, the pressure is back the other way, as the close confines of mass transit is seen as a potential major vector of transmission.

Where does this take us?

It all depends. The sooner we can return to “business as normal”, the more likely we are to do so. There are many people who have enjoyed this break from the commute, and from an enforced office life. But there are also those who desperately miss it. Some just miss the social contact that comes with it, the weak ties social contact that helps sustain our mood. Others long for a return to a clear distinction between home life and working life. But others like it for less admirable reasons, like a hankering for management by presence and other control-based pleasures.

The longer our less mobile state continues, the harder it will be for the latter group to reassert the old normality.

The end of the routine commute

The most likely outcome is a complete shift from compulsory full-time commuting to optional attendance - in some countries, at least. And if those change stake hold, they are likely to spread. People will gather for key moments and meetings, but will work remotely. The line between remote working and office working is likely to become a lot more fluid.

And that has serious implications for a mobility infrastructure built around a twice daily commute. Indeed, if office attendance becomes a focused activity, rather than a routine one, then the pattern of commuting will change dramatically. If you’re heading in for an afternoon workshop, you can potentially catch a quieter train at 11.30am, rather than the commuter cattle truck at 8am.

On the common routes I use, they run much shorter trains out of peak hours. That might well need rebalancing if the peak commuting hours never resume. Indeed, these longer commuting routes are the most likely to see dramatic changes.

Nice job, nice home — why commute?

Many of the longer-distance commuters are the better-paid information workers, who are senior enough in their careers, and who have a pleasant enough home environment, that they’d quite like things to stay the way they have been during lockdown, thank you very much.

The few times I do have to catch the early morning commuter trains, and see the people who commute for 80 minutes or more, each way, every day, the more I suspect most of those people will grasp the chance to escape that grinding experience into the future. The pallid look and drooping eyelids on the morning train, the exhaustion and gin-and-tonics in a can on the way home? That’s no way to live.

What does that mean for our longer-haul transport infrastructure? We need that infrastructure in place, but we’re going to have to fund it in other ways. Could we see more freight shift back to the railways? Airlines are already experimenting with this, to counter the dramatic slump in air traffic.

This opens up the possibility of a rethinking of our logistics infrastructure – no longer one based on lorries radiating out from hubs, but one based on point-to-point distribution by rail, and then delivery by van from there. If the roads are going to have more cars on them again for social distance reasons, you can counter-balance that by bringing some lorries off the roads. And electric vans can handle the local distribution from the rail hubs.

The car is back

The changes within urban environments are likely to be more dramatic. For one, socially distanced transportation methods are likely to resurge. And yes, that means the car is back. This is an easy one to predict. People like the private space of a car. And if it’s safer, it becomes an easy choice – particularly if fewer commuters means emptier roads.

But if we are likely to head back to the private car as a safe way of getting around with minimal viral risk, then we need to get people out of the carbon-belching petrol cars and into their electric equivalent. People do seem to realise this – electric car sales surged in the early part of this year. And initiatives like Germany’s move to force all filling stations to have electric charging points will help as well.

Scooter mobility is go

Some of the more maligned startups of our time – like the app-based electric scooter hire business – might find that their time has come. With people being encouraged to stay out of the subway and take their journey above ground, scooters extend the radius that’s time effective.

Europe has resisted the rise of the electric scooter companies – until now. But with a compelling reason to keep people above ground, some countries are changing their attitude. Britain is in the process of making electric scooters legal for the first time, for example.

On yer bike

Of course, bikes also allow people to go further without resorting to public transport. Cycle-hire schemes like the London’s famous “Boris bikes” – instituted when the current UK Prime Minister was the London mayor – are a good model for the rest of the world.

Indeed, we’re seeing cities worldwide use the great pause to implement more support for cycling on their streets. Europeans, in particular, are showing an enthusiasm for reclaiming the streets for the pedestrian and the cyclist:

New polling data from 21 cities across six European countries shows a clear majority in favor of measures geared at preventing a return to pre-pandemic levels of air pollution. There is strong support for new zero-emissions zones, banning cars from urban areas and maintaining road space gains for bike lanes and pedestrian paths implemented during the health crisis.

The Mobility Opportunity

There’s a massive opportunity in a public opinion that strong.

The Coronavirus Crisis is offering us a blank slate. A time to rethink how we live and work – and thus, how we travel. Governments and businesses alike would be well advised to take advantage of that opportunity to try some dramatic rethinking of how they provide mobility solutions. Plans for transport infrastructure changes need reviewing. The old certainties have become clouds of quantum possibility instead, and we can take the opportunity to build something radically new – if we dare.


Image by Roman Koester