Automotive Blogs

COVID-19: Transit-Mobility Showdown

by Roger Lanctot | Jun 18, 2020

Car makers and ride hailing operators are licking their chops in anticipation as economies emerge from lockdowns and human beings return to public spaces. The expectation is that millions of stalwart public transit users will change their behavior in a COVID-19-saturated environment – getting back into their cars or shifting to ride-hailing options and avoiding public transit.

This assumption is a reasonable one to make and it was evident in a Webinar moderated by Forbes transport correspondent Carlton Reid and put on by MOVE last week. The participants – Getaround CEO Sam Zaid, Free Now Group CEO Marc Berg, and BlaBlaCar CEO Nicolas Brusson – somewhat self-consciously (guiltily?) described their expectations for a surge in automobile-centric transportation in the wake of COVID-19.

MOVE Mobility Webinar: https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/play/uMZ8Jemu-jk3HNCQswSDB_R6W420e6ys1ncfr6ULmUfmASMAYQbwN7RDZutlu6vpBiGRIcQseT4NivMt?continueMode=true&_x_zm_rtaid=-wamGl2NSzWrxETnWz82tA.1592486717769.c1640ace965da084da2f688cedec3a3d&_x_zm_rhtaid=638

Each of these operators faces unique challenges. Getaround’s peer-to-peer sharing model might seem especially vulnerable tied as it is to both sharing and tourism – transportation-related behaviors that have been in decline for three months. Free Now’s ride hailing and taxi services have taken a similar demand hit from COVID-19. And BlaBlaCar, the original carpooling innovator, saw its original business rationale practically outlawed in some markets.

All three of these operators are recovering. All three have already seen increases in demand due to a combination of transit service reductions and consumer preference. 

All three operators also note the importance of public transit. Berg and Brusson both cited the horrific transportation scenarios that predictably arrive with Paris’ periodic transit strikes.

Clearly these mobility operators are poised for a big boost when the market bounces back in full. Yet they are simultaneously respectful of the fact that they cannot and must not be seen as substitutes for mass transit.

As the stage is set for a return to contention for multimodal decision-making among consumers the central question of data sharing and mobility-as-a-service aggregation will become more central. All three participants argued in favor of relaxed regulatory oversight and skepticism regarding data sharing.

Brusson of BlaBlaCar stated the case most succinctly describing data as BlaBlaCar’s “crown jewels.” It’s worth noting that ride hailing operator Uber has led the opposition to Los Angeles’ proposed Mobility Data Standard (MDS) on privacy and other grounds.

Interoperability and cooperation among service providers appears to be acceptable, based on the comments of all three Webinar participants. More than one also pointed to the growing shift toward cities integrating two-wheel transportation options – with exclusive travel lanes and other accommodations.

It remains unclear as to how transportation post-COVID-19 will evolve. Berg of Free Now expressed some doubt that COVID-19 would be around for more than 9-12 months – i.e. not years. In spite of that sunny assessment, he hatched the biggest news tidbit of the Webinar by casually mentioning Free Now’s integration of flexible plastic shields or partitions between drivers and passengers.

As far as public transit is concerned, the sad reality is that for many users of public transit there is simply no option. For economic or geographic reasons millions of bus and subway riders are bound to public transportation. Service cutbacks must be restored as economies re-open post-COVID-19.

The real future of urban transportation will be determined by the enduring level of unemployment and the endurance of work-from-home measures. Some jobs may never return, and some workers may never return to the office. These two critical factors will determine the future of the urban transportation environment – and operators will be forced to innovate and adapt accordingly.

Free Now app-based taxi booking with partitions (introduced in June):

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