A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to host one of our weekly COVID-19 webinars. We discussed the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on public transport and how our technologies are likely to be used to help.

We had two panellists from Consult Hyperion (Neil McEvoy, CEO, and Simon Laker, Principal Consultant from our US office) and the guest panellist was Steve Cassidy from Fuse Mobility, a Scottish start-up providing Mobility as a Service (MaaS) software solutions.

The discussion was divided into three parts as follows:

  1. In the ‘Before Times’, MaaS was the direction of travel motivated by congestion and global warming. Will this continue to be the case?
  2. During the COVID-19 Lockdown, how can technology help facilitate safer essential travel?
  3. What will the ‘New Normal’ look like for mobility?

The Before Times

MaaS solutions – ones that integrate different existing transport providers to provide a near seamless door-to-door experience for consumers – were assumed to be the long term ‘direction of travel’ in order to address the mobility, congestion and pollution issues. Our MaaS Payments white paper in July 2019 showed that integration is key:

  • Modes
  • Ticketing
  • Payments
  • Journey planning
  • Hyperpersonalised packages

Lockdown

Many public transport operators are providing ‘enhanced Sunday services’. As most passengers stay at or work from home, we are seeing a decline in ridership of 75-95% across the globe. Changing patterns of user mobility when working from home means there are many fewer advance purchases in an uncertain future with tightly managed budgets. This is pushing us towards the future we already thought was coming where PAYG dominates and season tickets are irrelevant. Operator web sites are having to make special provision for customers claiming refunds on their season tickets which they can no longer use.

Meanwhile, we are seeing reports of levels of traffic being back at 1955 levels and the improvement of air quality leading to an estimated 1,752 avoided pollution deaths in the UK.

New Normal

For me, the most interesting technical development for coming out of Lockdown is the ‘Privacy-preserving contact tracing apps’ being proposed by various government and organisations across the globe. We have seen an unprecedented co-operation between Apple and Google in agreeing to modify their mobile device operating systems to accommodate such apps. The technology proposed is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) which uses radio waves over distances up to 10m. The technology is the same as has been tried without much success for running Be-In Be-Out (BIBO) transit payment schemes. These tend to suffer from not being able to detect accurately enough whether a potential passenger is on or off a bus, or just standing nearby. And they also suffer from being no more convenient to use than established technologies such as contactless cards and 2-D barcodes.

BLE will allow two contact tracing apps to detect each other and share anonymised information about being in contact that can be used later to alert potentially infected parties when someone declares themselves as having tested positive.

The UK government has rejected the proposals from Apple, Google and several others to instead prefer a centralised approach because they believe the alternative would lead to a delay in the reporting of symptoms, amongst other consequences. Only time will tell whether the UK population can be convinced to use the NHS app which launched a trial in the Isle of Wight on 4 May. Steve Pannifer recently blogged about this. And we discussed it on week 6 of our Webinars, the recording of which will be available on our website soon.

What will the future hold for public transport when lock down lifts? On the webinar we considered what plans China had in place at that time. The Shenzhen bus company paper about combatting COVID-19 covers the following points:

  • The virus will not be eradicated soon; extra precautions are needed against the spread of the virus.
  • Passenger will be screened using temperature checks.
  • Big data used will be used for planning the most important routes needed for getting passengers to work; mobility provided will be modified according to demand.
  • Passenger health data will be collected from apps. Presumably, like other contact tracing apps mentioned above.
  • Continued enforcement of a maximum of 50% passenger loading.
  • Voluntary passenger name and contacts registration in case needed later.

There is an opportunity for MaaS Providers post lockdown since the public are likely to be either using their private cars to avoid contact with others or else using on demand services.

The transit COVID-19 webinar recording is available to watch. Many thanks to our panellists for sharing their time and insights.

We continue to host weekly webinars every Thursday at 4pm BST. Let us know if you would like to register to attend.

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