By Sam Ryan, Co-Founder & CEO of Zeelo, @SamRyan17 / @GoZeelo.
The shock of COVID-19 lockdowns hit our public transport systems like nothing they’ve ever experienced before. A significant decrease in demand and income, yet a need to get critical staff to work safely. Many have struggled to adapt - we’ve seen bailouts for bus and train companies and the tragic passing of many transport workers, particularly in London. As we begin to think about the next phase, public transport faces an even tougher challenge; but if we adapt quickly enough, there is an opportunity to change our transport systems for good.
Zeelo pivot to support during the lockdown
In normal times, Zeelo is a UK-based bus-sharing company providing smart transportation services for commuting, school runs and events; we use data and technology to find and digitalise fixed bus routes, targeting areas of high private car usage in order to connect people to places via sustainable transport; working with partners and local bus and coach fleets to operate at the times they are needed.
When COVID-19 hit, 80% of our corporate and school clients closed their doors and suspended our routes. We pivoted to providing safe bus transport for critical workers, adapting our software to enforce onboard social distancing and allow for contact tracing; as well as working with our local bus partners to put in place measures to control infection risk such as driver PPE, zero-contact ticketing and extra-sanitization. Within days, we had companies such as Amazon, Argos and Ocado live, who wanted to provide dedicated services for their staff so they didn’t need to risk using public transport. Based on these results, we set up our platform in Italy and plan to launch more European regions over the coming weeks.
Loss of confidence in mass transit, peak capacity in battle with social distancing and hello to our old “friend” the car
As we begin to think about how to re-open safely, public transport faces a battle on 3 fronts: widespread mistrust, risk of financial collapse and capacity issues at peak times due to the need for social distancing.
Demand will be down for a sustained period, even as the strict lockdowns ease. Working from home is likely to be encouraged, at least 2-3 days a week, and people are nervous about using public transport. According to Auto Trader, nearly half of UK public transport users said they would be less likely to use it once lockdown restrictions have been lifted. Public transport is a low margin business at the best of times; often heavily reliant on subsidies. This prolonged decrease in demand will deem many routes unviable.
Social distancing and public transport are two things that don’t sit well together. Even with the reduced demand, key ‘trunk’ routes will still face capacity issues at peak times. If social distancing is enforced, capacity will be down to 15-30% of pre-COVID levels.
Worse still, alarm bells are ringing about the mode shift of these former public transport users. Data on China from an Ipsos report shows that private car use has surged to 66% from 34% pre-COVID, with public transport use seeing an almost identical decrease in usage. Mass transit, or macro-mobility, is the backbone of any successful economy; responsible for moving people en masse at peak times. An uptick in private car usage will have undesirable consequences for congestion, air quality and CO2 emissions.
Adapting mobility to ‘live with’ COVID-19; ensuring a safe and sustainable new normal
Whilst we face unprecedented challenges, there is an opportunity for cities to not only overcome what we face today but to drive through positive change that previously would have taken us decades.
Cities can embrace active mobility: Milan is introducing temporary cycle lanes, widened pavements, cyclist priority streets and reduced speeds limits and Berlin has created ‘pop-up bike lanes with physical distancing; London will soon follow suit. E-bikes and scooters are likely to play a big role.
Previously heavily subsidised bus routes can be replaced by more convenient and profitable flexible routes provided by demand-responsive bus services like Arriva Click or commuter-specific routes by companies like Zeelo.
Zeelo will support by rebuilding trust in public, or mass transport, focussing on 3 key areas: continuing to provide dedicated commuter bus services for companies, offering our software to public transport operators to enforce social distancing and contact tracing to help them rebuild trust and offering access to thousands of otherwise unused coaches from operators to provide extra peak-time capacity.
Here’s to embracing this opportunity to change our transport habits for a safer, more sustainable future.