Smart transport’s time has come in the wake of the pandemic pause

We have the technology to change the way we travel, and the pandemic pause has given us the opportunity to rethink transport. Let's not waste it.

The pandemic has granted us a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink our entire transport infrastructure — and make it smarter. It seems almost rude to remind people of the looming climate crisis while we’re still deep in the viral one. It’s necessary. Transport accounts for nearly a quarter of all carbon emissions — and we could massively reduce that but only if we move fast, and make good decisions. There are clearly some outcomes we do not want:

Data from Chinese cities shows a flight from public transport to private vehicles as lockdowns ease and people, seeking to maintain social distancing and reduce their exposure to risk, are turning away from public transport.

While that might please the car manufacturers, until we can create a massive increased use of electric vehicles, that would only accelerate us into a climate change disaster. So, how do we change the way we move, without creating ruinous levels of carbon emissions?

The broken transport habit

There is a massive opportunity here. Habits, these most powerful of motivators, have been broken. People paused. Do we push people back into the old ways, or do we facilitate new ways of being?

Things do have to change — there’s no going back to the old transport patterns while the novel coronavirus remains a threat. For the time being, crowded commuter trains are a terrible contagion risk, and need to be avoided. And that suggests encouraging people not to travel unless they have to — and making it safer to do so when they must.

And that means rearchitecting working practices and transport infrastructure that have revolved around peak-time commutes since the first commuter lines snaked out of our cities in the 19th century.

The necessity of smart transport data

We need to know who is travelling, when, and where. We need to understand how the pandemic has changed those patterns. And we need to act on the information we gather. London, for example, is gathering data to build better cycle routes:

London has already installed video sensors with artificial intelligence capability in 20 locations across the city to detect the volume of transport, especially cyclists and pedestrians in order to use a data-driven approach to determine the demand for new cycling routes in the city.

We need data to understand people’s movements, to help plan the cities of the future. Some needed changes will facilitate that. The paper ticket feels like an unnecessary anachronism in an age when we will be encouraged to minimize our touch-points. Electronic ticketing on phones seems like a much more viable solution. And that enables an element of tracking.

Transport data fair exchange

So, we’re back with our old friend data privacy — what happens to that data, and how well anonymised is it? Perhaps it’s not anonymised at all initially, and helps feed track and trace operations to control viral outbreaks. That makes sense — but suggests that we need to determine a point after which the personally identifying information should be removed. We only retain the anonymised mass data for planning purposes.

This could be a good trade-off, if the data is also used to provide value to the travellers; real-time and predicted use levels could help us make more informed choices about when we travel, if we’re no longer tied to peak commutes. If we know that the roads are clear for a swift cycle, or that the trains are quiet, we can travel with more confidence.

Indeed, public transport becomes cheaper to run if you’re not catering for peak periods, but instead trying to provide a steady service across a more distributed travelling day. A more relatable, more frequent “hop on, hop off” approach to public transport will make it more useful and less intimidating in the COVID-19 age — and maybe keep it more economically viable, too.

Rethinking logistics

But transport is not just about people, it’s also about goods. And, indeed, a reduction in people’s daily mobility is likely to massively increase the demand for distribution systems. If, as is widely expected, a higher number of people end up working from home, and online shopping continues its explosive growth, we’re going to need to shift distribution chains from a focus to delivery to shops, to focus on delivery to customers.

Shopping malls have been declining for years, but the pandemic is only likely to accelerate that. Maybe those spaces will be better deployed as local distribution hubs, repurposing redundant existing property, rather than the construction overhead of building new warehouses.

Indeed, the pandemic has show the fragility of just-in-time global supply chains. To build greater resilience, we need more distributed stockpiles of key goods. Again, data has a huge role to play here, and we’ll need new system to help priorities and plan for very different sets of movement from the ones we’ve developed over decades.

Automating the last mile logistics

And what of the last mile? How do you get goods from those local hubs to people’s front doors without riving those carbon emissions straight back up? Well, those short hops are ideal for electric vehicles, and many food delivery companies are already using this options.

But there are emerging solutions, too. We might still be a long way from autonomous cars, but autonomous delivery is already in use. Amazon has been talking about delivery drones for some time now, but other people are already trialling systems in some cities. Meal delivery app Just Eat is using drones in Dublin, for example.

How about small delivery robots scooting food to us in our quietened streets? It almost sounds like sci-fi, but is already happening in the UK’s Milton Keynes.

Don’t waste the transport pause

There’s plenty of technology in an advanced enough state that we could start deploying it almost immediately. The great pause is also a moment of great opportunity. We've broken our transport habits. New ones can rise to fill the gap. And they might just help stave off the bigger duster lurking in all our futures: climate change.

But you might need to move fast. In some places, mobility levels are rapidly returning to normal. For example, Google’s mobility data suggests that people are still travelling for retail and recreation by 9% less than before the pandemic hit, and public transport is still 7% down but travel for work is actually very slightly up, by 3%.

In the UK, however, public transport use is still 27% down, and retail and recreation down 28%. Whatever the causes of these differences, the more pre-existing habits reassert themselves, the harder it will be to implement change. But as all nations grapple with recessions, growing unemployment and a need to green their economies, those that use the crisis to rebuild smarter give themselves a clear path towards a more resilient future.


Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash