Peter O’Driscoll, Managing Director, RingGo, discusses how the coronavirus lockdown has affected public and private transport and what the future holds for the mobility sector
There’s a reason the word “unprecedented” is now plastered across our cultural landscape. No one has seen anything like this. The parking and mobility industries will need to be particularly dynamic as countries reopen and recover at different rates, but flexibility and change are already something that these industries were already adjusting to.
Though there are many differing opinions on what exactly things will look like as cities begin to open back up, but many are aligned on the big changes that are in progress. Large-scale travel will resume, but mobility is moving towards a shared model. Local authorities will change their deployment of parking resources, while, most importantly, many will sprint towards a contactless/cashless society to protect public health.
The crisis highlighted a sector in flux
Before COVID-19, the mobility sector had already been upended by advances in sharing technologies and new approaches sparked by environmental concerns. Now, mobility as a whole is getting reassessed. Cycling is getting promoted and things that had been languishing in the docket are now being pushed to the forefront.
In fact, local authorities are trying to react quickly, sometimes finding local options more flexible to implement and most adaptable as the situation evolves. Tony Ralph, Islington’s Service Director of the Public Realm, is seeing this not just within his borough, but across the diverse range of surrounding councils. “The real scale of the impacts of this crisis are most likely not fully understood.” He is certain, however, that the public and private sectors will be adapting quickly to implement a wide range of safety measures.
Lasting impacts predicted
This isn’t to say that mobility will go back to how it was in 2019. Companies now know they can save money by opting for virtual solutions and remote meetings. The virtual framework they were forced to construct out of necessity can be maintained to maximise physical resources and minimise space costs.
The return to normalcy will also bring large questions about congestion and public transport. A Chinese study found that traffic jams increased by about 20% in 17 cities after lockdown because people didn’t want to be on public transport. The experts believe this could happen in the UK as well. It is likely that people will stay home and be wary of public transport after the lockdown ends, but by August or September they’ll be drifting back to usual transportation options, though this varies by region. A change in preferences will make cycling more popular and likely accelerate electric scooter usage and legislation.
A drive for more contactless options
There will be a profound shift towards contactless payments as governments and businesses alike look for every way to reduce the virus’ spread. Ralph point out “that local authorities are now considering virtual parking enforcement, with no need to put a ticket on the car.”
Some local authorities have been reluctant to explore this before the crisis. Now, councils across the UK are removing parking machines from streets to reduce the likelihood of illnesses being passed by so many hands touching machines.
Of course, the road to contactless parking has some bumps. Some elderly people are uncomfortable with contactless payments or unable to physically manipulate the technology. Some councils may also need to address the limited distribution of smartphones or the internet itself.
Parking’s local impact
Local authorities are facing huge holes in their budgets, as they have either stopped charging for parking or seen demand for parking disappear. Many are offering free parking to healthcare workers, and others have taken away all parking charges.
“From a parking perspective,” remarks Ralph about Islington. “We have seen the overall revenue of the service decrease from reduced travel and downsized parking enforcement. We have adopted a measured approach and focussed on enforcement to support the supply chain and enable safe and reliable passage around the borough for key workers.”
It will take many tools to bridge this gap, but one of them is certainly contactless payment. Residents will be far more likely to use paid parking if they can pay without having to touch a potentially infected parking machine.
Lewis Wray, Director of WSP in the UK, suggests a creative solution to the gap in retail parking demand. Local authorities can make money by monetising kerb space. Many places are seeing less car travel into central zones. Deliveries, however, still need to happen. Some of this is due to London specific auto restrictions, and some is due to reduced retail-oriented travel due to online shopping. That empty kerb space could not only be used for those deliveries, but it can also be monetised in a way that makes things easier for the businesses by using reservations via an online platform.
This moment may prove to be a tipping point in sustainability. Wray believes that while the tension between the economy and environment still exists, the drive for a cleaner environment will continue after the crisis. Cities will still need to control automotive crowding and reduce parking congestion in urban areas. Moreover, the current environmental push could accelerate as attention goes to digital.
A few key ways for local governments to maintain clean air include emission-based parking, bike highways and variable deliveries with reservations. A major push that councils can make to impact the environment is to adopt Emissions Based Parking (EBP) schemes which encourage those who purchase cars to purchase electric vehicles. Since its adoption in Westminster two years ago, EBP has led to a 38% reduction in nitrogen dioxide in the air while there has been a reduction of 16% in the most polluting diesel vehicles in the area.
To answer the economic impact of these solutions, councils need to balance traffic, trade and air quality through data, specifically using the millions of data points generated by parking apps.
The future of mobility
There are many solutions under discussion for the diverse challenges and factors in every city, but they rest on two things: data and flexibility. Businesses and governments can’t afford to get stuck in a single way of doing things or a rigid viewpoint. They must use data to know which of the many tools they must use to react to the situation in real-time. Moreover, they must act quickly.
There are no simple answers. As Wray noted, “There’s never been an event that’s had such an impact on people.” It is certainly clear, however, that the mobility sector has an incredible opportunity to be a force for positive change. The decisions made now can improve the health and lives of millions, to say nothing about the seismic impact of improving the environment.
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