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COVID-19’s Long-Term Impact on Mobility

The pandemic has dramatically reduced ridership on public transit in most of the world. But once the pandemic ends, will the public go back to using public transport or not? And what about electrification of transport and other initiatives — how have they been impacted by COVID? 

Jinhua Zhao, leads MIT’s work on mobility and consumer behavior. He says there are likely to be different responses in different parts of the world.

ZHAO: In the short term, there has been a global suppression of mobility. Public transit was hit the most, and in the recovery you’ll find that the private car side comes back more quickly and the transit less so. 

We spent many years promoting sustainable transportation — walking, cycling and public transit — and we achieved some progress there. But unfortunately, COVID has pushed this back a few years. Particularly with public transit, and a concerted effort is needed to reinvigorate our attention to sustainable transportation. 

Big Difference Between US and Asia Response

The U.S. is more problematic, because public transit was in a precarious state to start with, and I worry that the public health concerns will linger on, even after the pandemic’s over. Whereas with many of the Asian cities, like Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai, the role that public transit plays as the backbone of the urban mobility system, was never challenged. 

Even in the worst moment of the pandemic, everybody believes and expects that public transport will recover in Asia. It has to recover. COVID is a transitional period, and after the pandemic is over, public transport will resume its foundational role. Whereas in the U.S., public transit has been hit very hard. Many of the transit agencies are struggling. I hope the federal government will take action to help.

More than recovery, we could use this as a chance to upgrade public transit. For example, because of COVID, there has been a lot of sanitation of the buses and trains. After the pandemic, hopefully we’ll continue to make sure that we have a very clean, but more generally, pleasant experience of riding public transit. We could use this opportunity to define a much more positive image of public transit.

Electrification Is Moving Forward Faster in Asia

BRINK: Do you think that the big trends that we saw before COVID, electrification, autonomous vehicles, de-carbonization, are still on track?

ZHAO: Electrification is reaching a tipping point. The U.S. is leading the technology, but lagging behind Asia in implementation. In some Chinese cities, for example, it will soon get to a point where it is almost impossible to buy an internal combustion engine car. You have to buy a green energy vehicle. 

The contrast is even starker on the electrification of public transit. The U.S. currently has about 600 battery electric buses running around across the country. In China, there are 500,000 such buses operating. So the U.S. is behind in both aspects, but in public transit, it’s a different order of magnitude. That’s a lot of catching up to do. 

BRINK: And what about autonomous vehicles? Do you think that’s been knocked off course by COVID at all?

ZHAO: People’s rosy anticipation of autonomous vehicles was dampened a bit even before COVID. Many companies revised their projected time of how many cars would be on the ground running, et cetera. COVID has a negative impact on people’s preference for sharing a ride and, therefore, the business model of fleet based shared autonomous service. But its impact on the automation technology per se is not that clear. 

COVID offers a forceful natural experiment at scale and challenges a lot of the stigma around working from home, while also revealing its limitations.

Will People Be Comfortable Sharing Space?

If you increase the occupancy and operate the automobile as a fleet, it’s possible for autonomous vehicles to play a very positive role, but the question is: Will passengers be willing to share rides?

Today, with a Taxi or UberPool, the presence of the driver defines the social setting, which helps to reduce the anxiety of sharing rides with strangers. But, in autonomous vehicles, it’s just a machine that comes by for two strangers to share a small and confined space of the same vehicle — that’s actually a mode of social interaction that we have never experienced before, though it may be easier to encourage shared rides in vans. 

BRINK: The question of working from home — is that going to have a long term impact on transportation behavior?

ZHAO: Definitely, though it is not a binary change. It’s not like before COVID everybody worked at an office, and after COVID everyone worked at home. It will be a continuous shift toward a variety of mixtures along the spectrum of both space and time, responding to the nature of the work, personality and family consideration of the employees and corporate culture. 

Some people may want to go to the office three days a week or two days a week. You will see the whole spectrum of time working at a home versus working at an office. 

Another factor is that the office does not have to be downtown in a big office block. Many companies are starting to say, we could have a satellite office in the suburban areas, or small town centers. 

Companies Are Key Decision-Makers

And that relates to another important thing, who is the decision-maker here? We often recognize the individual as the decision-maker — we decide to travel by bus or by car. And often, the city also, as a body making a lot of decisions in putting in infrastructure, regulations, a tax, et cetera. 

But less discussed is the employer as a decision-maker. 

For example, take Kendall Square close to MIT, where there are a hundred different companies. The share of commuting by car can vary from 20% to 60% yet it is the same location, same access to infrastructure and similar employee pool. 

What determines the difference is the employer. Some companies on day one might say to an employee, “Oh, here’s free parking for you.” If there’s free parking, it destroys almost any hope of people getting out of their car. But then another employer could say, “You can buy parking, or we can offer a free transit pass.” 

Corporations can be the key innovator here. COVID offers a forceful natural experiment at scale and challenges a lot of the stigma around working from home, while also revealing its limitations. Companies have already invested in work from home, both in hardware, software and processes, and learned so much of what works and what does not. 

Corporations are thinking through this process at the moment: When COVID is over, do they bring everybody back? Do they bring them back by phases? Do we start innovating in terms of the spectrum of locations and times, and how do we combine them? Companies need to rethink the entire workflow and its relationship with space. These will all have impacts on mobility.

Jinhua Zhao

Associate Professor and Director at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mobility Initiative

Jinhua Zhao is the Edward and Joyce Linde associate professor of city and transportation planning, and the director of the Mobility Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Zhao brings behavioral science and transportation technology together to shape travel behavior, design mobility system and reform urban policies. 

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