By Pekka Möttö, Kyyti Group CEO
I am writing this in Helsinki, Finland. Four weeks of remote life are behind us and at least five more ahead. Nobody knows yet how long this phase of the Corona crisis will take. I have no understanding on how pandemics work, but I base my thinking on the unpleasant assumption that Corona alone will take a long time to tackle.There will be several waves and there will be similar pandemics also in the future. We need to be prepared and we need to take action. I focus this article on transportation and mobility, and try to share the great optimism I have about the future of our industry.
My personal background is deep in the public transport operating world, and I am extremely sad to see what is happening today. Taxis have lost their customers and many operators face significant challenges to overcome even in this first phase of the crisis. Public transportation is operating in several countries, but for example here in Finland the utilization rate has dropped to 10% of what we used to consider normal.
New micromobility operators have lost users in large numbers. Schools are shut down, so there is no need for school transportation and even the special groups seem to be staying at home. Airlines and ferry operators, needless to say. The immediate impact of the crisis on the transportation industry is overwhelming and unfair. We are victims of something far beyond normal business risks and we need to do something to get back on our feet.
It is obvious that the old normal will not come back. The forced remote working arrangements will certainly have a lasting impact. There will be more remote work and thus less daily commuting in the future. This is welcome, because it is more sustainable.
Depending on the past situation less daily passengers can be a good thing or a bad thing for the transport operator. In Helsinki we have probably the best public transport system in the world and the capacity has been sized to demand. We have been used to having a seat in the train and metro even during peak demand. In many metropolitan cities the capacity has been a bottleneck for a tolerable user experience. So, whereas in Helsinki a permanent drop in daily commuting may result in declining overall public transport capacity in the long run, somewhere else it may actually increase the usability of the system and certainly improve the customer experience.
For the airlines the new normal will most likely be dramatically more difficult to deal with than for the public transport and local mobility operators. What will happen to global business and leisure travel? A fundamental decrease is probably the best guess, unfortunately.
Governments around the world have taken action to support businesses, including transportation companies, to survive the acute crisis. This is good and necessary, but it is only first aid. What we as an industry need to do is to adapt to the new normal, and most importantly do our part for the world to get back on its feet as smoothly as possible.
We do have a central role in everyday functioning of our society, and we need to contribute in every way possible to be a part of the solution. Like it or not, public transport and other mobility services are at the moment widely seen as a part of the problem. People quite understandably don’t want to use shared services. Fear is present, and it will stay in people’s minds even when the lockdowns are lifted.
Having said all that, what did I mean earlier by saying that I want to share my great optimism about the future of our industry?
To put it very simply, we do have access to new technologies that enable us to reorganize public transport to some extent, and most importantly we do have technologies to decrease the fear that people feel. In my view, the fear is the key element here, and we need to take action to overcome it. Not only for our own benefit, but more importantly to enable our societies to get back to functioning as quickly as possible in compliance with the guidelines that authorities give.
During this acute crisis we have seen great initiatives from the shared on-demand providers to enable frontline workers to get safely to work and back home. This is a great contribution to those whose effort we need the most at the moment. We need to do what we can to support them and at the same time send a message that mobility companies do have solutions that are useful in the emergency situation.
When we think about the way out of the crisis, taxis, shared on-demand, micromobility and demand responsive transportation services will have a bigger role than before. The fact that people will be shy to use public transport will open up possibilities for lower vehicle capacity services on a permanent basis. This is a great example of putting new mobility technologies into a use that helps society recover.
Obviously, smaller capacity vehicles can not be the answer to the Ultimate Question of transporting the masses. I see no scenario for mobility in the foreseeable future, in which high capacity vehicles like trains and buses are not in the central role.
To enable mass transport in the most effective way, we need to address the core problem. That problem is fear, and I do have a solution in mind. It may be undoable for several reasons in the opinion of many, but at least it is a better answer than 42.
What do people fear? People don’t want to catch the virus from others and they don’t want to infect others. These are both very good reasons, and they will result in many people not being willing to use public transport anymore.
This is a vicious circle, which has a major effect on the whole society. There are not enough roads for everyone to start using their own cars and many don’t have the car in the first place. Not to mention, that private car is not the answer to sustainable transportation anyway.
People will need to get back to work as quickly as possible using any means available for them to get there. Only the privileged have the opportunity to work remotely, so there is a problem to be solved here.
What if we would come up with a solution that groups people based on their personal risk status? And if using this solution would be imperative to have access to mobility services? Sounds terrible, but in fact such a solution might be a controlled way out of the situation we are in.
We do have technologies in place to allow access to any mobility service only for a certain group of users. We can connect the mobility user groups for example to predefined railroad cars, buses, taxi fleets, shared cars etc.
Everybody could trust that people in the same vehicle are authorized to be there, and the same vehicles are not used to transport other mobility user groups. You could feel safe sitting in a bus or a taxi or using a shared car. Doesn’t sound bad at all.
There might be group A and group B that are both ok to travel, but not with each other. Easy solution is to allocate services to both groups. More groups there are, the more complicated the solution is, but with modern technology still easily controllable.
Think of five different mobility user groups. A,B,C,D,E.
A and B are ok to travel together. B is ok to travel also with E. A may not travel with E. We don’t even need to add C and D to understand the complexity here. With smart technology complexity is not an issue.
Is this realistically doable? Yes it is, if there is a database from which individual user’s authorization can be confirmed – other pieces of the solution already exist. This database should be created and controlled by the authority, and it would be switched off when the need for control is over. This makes sense, if relevant user groups can be identified. It is not my job to think what these groups might be, but I trust that the health authorities will have an answer to that.
If this is doable, it would be utterly irresponsible from the authority not to do it. Think again about A,B,C,D and E. If there are combinations, for example C and D together, that result in a new wave of the epidemic, it will certainly happen unless controlling measures are in place. Shouldn’t we do anything in our power to keep C and D apart rather than open up the society and close down again after a few months when the epidemic is back? How many rounds can we stand in this game?
Privacy issues are obvious here. Are we willing to go this far into public control? If the alternative is economic suicide, I think we are. I personally am strongly against public control, but my personal opinion does not matter. We need a way out of the crisis with minimum damage, that is what matters.
Think about airport security. When hard measures were introduced, we were annoyed, but now we understand that sense of security through control is actually quite a good idea. Unlike the airport security, crises like Corona will pass, and there will be new normal.
Even if such a solution would not be viable in the present Corona crisis, I strongly suggest that we are better prepared when the next crisis comes. This is the big opportunity for the mobility sector. Post Corona world will be different and we can contribute to it in a whole new way.
Maybe someone reading this can come up with an idea to ease the crisis situation and recovering from it without strong control – such ideas are invaluable right now.
If you have any further questions regarding this topic please contact Kyyti Group MaaS experts.