The Effects of COVID-19 on Mobility: A Q&A with Industry Leaders Joan Haratani and Elizabeth Herrington

Saturday, May 30, 2020

In this Q&A, partners Joan Haratani and Beth Herrington, members of the firm’s automotive & mobility industry team, discuss mobility in the time of coronavirus (COVID-19), from the effects on public transport to traffic patterns.

Given the continued reluctance of people to take public transportation, how will people actually return to the office?

Joan Haratani

Before COVID-19, mobility was a factor of convenience and expediency. Now safety is more of a factor. As we return to work, personal cars will be a favored mode of transportation for those who can afford it. In Wuhan, for instance, we saw car traffic double after 76 days when the region unlocked itself in part due to lower oil prices. Further, you are seeing cities intentionally try to limit the use of public transit, and extra steps being taken for cleaning and safety. The New York City subway for example, now closes each day for cleaning, and no longer has 24-hour service for the first time in a century. I think you will also see non-car methods of private transportation, like electric scooters and bikes, which have been used by essential workers during the pandemic to deliver in some cases lifesaving products and services, including in Europe, used by other commuters more. Data is already showing that scooters and bike shares are being used increasingly by commuters for longer commutes, a new trend since the pandemic. Car pooling and ridesharing as modes of transportation will continue to face challenges dependent on the availability and reliability of COVID-19 testing and progress towards the development of vaccines.

You are also seeing return–to-work plans that are phased and careful, indicating that this will be the new normal for some time. So, while a return to offices is coming, it is clearly going to be a careful and long-term process.

What does the new normal look like for mobility as we adjust to a return-to-work scenario?

Beth Herington

In the near term, industries around the world will need to make changes and adapt for the longer term. They are going to have to adapt to things like more or continued remote working; partial or more permanent street closures; and a configuration or reconfiguration of public transport and roads. As many cities have experimented with closing streets to increase pedestrian space or provide outdoor seating for restaurants, and more limited hours and routes for public transit, industries will have to adapt to these trends.

The continued need for work from home and physical distancing even beyond the initial shelter in place orders has opened everyone’s eyes to what might be possible. It will change how individuals, companies, and governments think about mobility and transportation in general. For instance, are the roads we have built for personal drivers and rideshares as necessary as they were before or will people prefer different individualized transportation, like ebikes and escooters? Can some of the street closures for pedestrians and restaurants remain permanent? Governments and companies that are ahead of the curve will take the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink infrastructure from street design to public transit. We’ll see more innovation by transportation and mobility companies as a result of people wanting to be more safe when they travel.

What could the future hold for public transit and ridesharing?

Beth Herrington

By and large, we have seen a substantial reduction of people willing to take public transit. Ultimately, however, public transportation has to return in some form or fashion. Particularly in large cities, there needs to be a mode of low-cost public transportation that the majority of citizens has available to them. The question is what form will it take. Public transit and ridesharing companies will likely continue to have an increased focus on pandemic-resistant design, whether in the form of seating configurations, capacity, as well as longer-term adaptations like cleaning schedules and ventilation improvements.

As things move forward, people will remember what this pandemic was like and the innovation coming out of transportation and mobility companies will take into account the risk that this can happen again so that there isn’t a universal change that needs to take place if and when it does. Companies will have already adjusted and made provisions.

Joan Haratani

I agree with Beth. There has to be an affordable way for people to travel, especially if their livelihoods depend on it. And, in the near term, ridesharing may face challenges, but in due course, many may view it as a preferable option as compared to public transit. Ridesharing has many advantages, and drivers and passengers are required to wear masks, which may not always be the case with public transit.  Also, ridesharing offers flexible advantages, especially if a few family members share the same ride (creative carpooling).

What do you think will be a lasting impact of the pandemic for consumers related to mobility?

Beth Herrington

I think we’ll see a continued reluctance to travel regularly, especially for purposes of work. There will continue to be virtual meetings and gatherings. It may open up a bit in 2021, but our willingness to travel often will likely change permanently. As more companies discovered the potential upside for remote work on productivity, some will continue to embrace it. Already, companies like Twitter have announced that even when its offices reopen, every employee will have the option to permanently work remotely, which could have significant impacts on traffic patterns, mobility, and even the distribution of populations as some people will no longer feel the need to live close to their offices. Similarly, as more industries have successfully had trade shows, conferences, and conventions remotely, that will also impact mobility patterns and travel in the long term. These types of events could continue to be virtual even after then pandemic-related health issues are overcome.

Joan Haratani

Telework will continue. There will be a risk/benefit analysis that takes place that will be heavily weighted towards personal safety. People will have to ask – is travel really necessary? We can also use the time we save on commuting, be it on the road or in the air, in a professional or personal capacity. As a society we thrive on connection. While we may not be connecting in person, we can use the time we save travelling to connect with each other in different ways.

To learn more, check out our Insight, Beyond Cars: Mobility in a COVID-19 World.