The Post-Pandemic Future of Shared Mobility
Updated: May 26
Will it thrive or die?
Nothing affects the way we move around quite like a pandemic. Restrictions on movement, lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders have not just distorted mobility patterns but completely rewritten them.
While some of these changes will be relatively short-lived, some will likely be here for the long haul. This represents a major challenge to mobility services but presents opportunities in equal measure.
What do we mean by shared mobility?
It is worth distinguishing between shared mobility and mass transit. While mass transit provides all-in-one transportation at low cost, shared mobility is more individualized. This includes carsharing, bikesharing, peer-to-peer ridesharing and other on-demand services. They can take a user to their doorstep and importantly, in the context of a pandemic, they are by nature more solitary. Some more so than others. While ridehailing or carpooling involves sharing with at least one other, a shared bike does not.
The short term ascendency of bicycles and cars, private and shared
For obvious reasons mass transit is likely to be the big loser from the pandemic. Despite the utilitarian benefits they provide, there are fears that they could be a hotbed of infection. Experts disagree on the extent to which this is the case, however these perceptions will be hard to shift. An outcome of this is likely to be the increased use of solitary transportation.
Having faced years of reduced popularity, the car is popular again - for the time being. According to DLR Verkehrsforschung, a German transport researcher, 63 percent of people expressed unease at using public transportation, with 32 percent of the non-car owners surveyed claiming they miss having one at this time.
“Only 6 percent of those without a car expressed an interest in owning one”
This would suggest a rush to the car dealers once they reopen, however, this is unlikely to be the case. In fact, only 6 percent of those without a car expressed an interest in owning one. We therefore have a sizable minority of non-car owners who would like to use a car, but do not plan to purchase one any time soon.
Car sharing faring better than scooter sharing
For this reason, we can expect a short term boost to free-floating car sharing and other sharing options that cater for longer distances and offer greater carrying capacity. Think cars and mopeds. Yet car sharing isn’t immune from fears over safety either. The same study found that 39 percent of those surveyed were fearful of carsharing, too. Less than public transit, but a large number all the same.
This is likely a familiar tale for all shared mobility and something they will need to overcome by implementing rigorous cleaning measures. For urban residents will still need safe ways of getting from A to B. In 2016, almost 30 percent of San Francisco residents didn’t own a vehicle, while that number was almost 55 percent in New York. In Europe vehicle ownership rates are even lower. In Vienna, for example, there are just 378 cars per 1000 inhabitants, while in Berlin there are even fewer, 328.
For this reason, we expect urban shared mobility modes that provide greater utility, like cars, to pick up more quickly. This is something we are seeing from our pool of fleets under management in Europe and North America. We found that a full lockdown scenario led to a 42 percent drop in car share trips compared to before the outbreak. And in a light lockdown scenario, the drop-off was just 19 percent. This compares favourably to other modes of shared mobility.
While direct comparisons are hard to achieve, as there are no blanket lockdown policies and existing infrastructure is so varied, we have seen huge drops in public transit usage. According to Apple Maps, as of May 12th, Berlin was still 61 percent below the baseline reaching -80 percent usage at the peak of the lockdown. New York remains (as of the 12th May) 85 percent below the baseline.
We see a similar story when it comes to ridesharing. Although Uber didn’t release its results for New York, they announced a drop in bookings for rides in Seattle and other hard-hit areas by as much as 60 to 70 percent. Many expect the actual damage to have been a lot worse.
Scooter operators are having the toughest time of all, with major providers such as Lime and Bird cutting many of their services. Spending on scooter services in the US fell by over 90 percent compared to the previous year in late March. Their popularity among tourists and high recreational value leave them more vulnerable to downturns in human movement, where each individual trip becomes more essential.
The big Boris bike winner
The biggest mobility winner in the short term is the bicycle. Cheap to buy, there has been a significant uptick in sales. The Guardian newspaper famously led with the headline ‘Bicycles are the new toilet paper'. Yet, the shared segment is also doing well considering the circumstances. For many urban citizens owning a bike is simply too much hassle. Cheap bike sharing schemes, often subsidised by the city, allow citizens to get fresh air and move around easily. And with more space vacated by larger vehicles, it is now safer to do so. Although bike rentals saw mixed results due to different degrees of lockdowns and some cities removing them entirely, there were some noticeable bright spots.
In New York half a million people took trips on Citi Bikes in the first eleven days of March; a 60 percent increase compared to last year. And across the pond in the UK, ridership for London’s Santander Cycles, popularly referred to as ‘Boris Bikes’, hit an all-time high on the weekend of 16 - 17 May with 50,000 trips. This is despite crushing decreases elsewhere (tube/subway usage being down 93 percent and bus usage, 74 percent). It would appear then that being outside in a pandemic beats being confined in a box regardless of sharing handlebars.
What is clear is that isolated transport options which provide a clear utility, e.g. carrying capacity or low cost, are likely to hold up well even in the throes of a pandemic. Those that cater significantly to recreational users or tourists, are likely to suffer more in the short term.
The long term future of social distancing
While the pandemic hasn’t disappeared, there is a feeling that many countries and cities, particularly those affected early by the virus, are beginning to get a grip on the pandemic. And that life is returning to something resembling normality. A ‘new normality’. While the majority yearn for life to return to how it was before, this is unlikely without a vaccine. What could this mean for mobility services?
There are challenges. Whatever happens, mobility will be reduced. Whether in reference to a 90 percent economy or the fact many will choose to work from home, the number of trips from A to B is unlikely to reach the giddy heights of 2019. Another challenge is the fear of shared surfaces. Managed properly this should not be an insurmountable one, especially for smaller vehicles like scooters.
The return of the scooter
The scooter, as we have seen, was the mobility mode most severely affected by the outbreak. However, the long term future could be brighter as the industry profits from a post-pandemic windfall.
Fears of airborne infections are likely to continue to put passengers off public transport even when infection rates dip. Mckinsey predicts this to continue well into 2021. This would play into the hands of more individualised modes of transport. And while many urban citizens would need different ways of getting around, and different modes of transport to do so, we can expect a greater emphasis on multi-modality. Due to their small surface areas, which are easy to clean, micromobility operators can quickly rebuild trust in their services by implementing effective disinfection regimes.
But the real opportunity for micromobility, lies, like many things, in the hands of policy makers. A shift in urban transport infrastructure that supports lighter, smaller vehicles, has the potential to change micromobility’s relationship with cities forever.
“The genie of carless cities now out of the bottle; it will be difficult to get it back in.”
More space for living (and scooters)
With residents locked down and incentives to travel removed, urban citizens got used to life without car traffic. In cities from Paris to Bogotá, pop-up cycle lanes were created to support social distancing. And with many residents around the world enjoying the pleasure of using urban space freely, without cars, for the first time, attitudes have begun to shift. The genie of carless cities now out of the bottle; it will be difficult to get it back in.
Following the coronavirus, the UK government unveiled a £2 billion infrastructure package to support cycling and walking, with measures to bring in trials for e-scooters as green alternatives to cars. In this case, Covid-19 was the catalyst for action. And in car-mad Brussels, an additional 40 kilometres of cycling paths will be created to help ease transport flows for when the city finally opens up again.
If this happens at a greater scale we could be at the cusp of a mobility infrastructure revolution. With less space for cars and more space for smaller and lighter vehicles, micromobility will become more attractive than ever.
Opportunity despite the challenges
Unless you were alive over 100 years ago, what we are experiencing today is unique. The pandemic’s power to disrupt the rhythm of daily life is incomparable to anything that has come before. And it will have a lasting impact on mobility.
While we would like life to return to normal as soon as possible, we are hopeful this could be the impetus needed to start the great rebalancing of urban space; taking it away from the private car and giving it back to the people. Nothing will be the same again, let it be better (shared).
Christian Adelsberger is Founder and CEO of Ubiq with a passion for cities and shared mobility.
Ubiq is shaping the future of urban mobility by enabling mobility services to become profitable. Experts in transforming raw urban data into actionable insights and valuable services, Ubiq enables better mobility decisions.