Why your commute to work will never be the same.

The pandemic destroyed traditional mass mobility in the urban setting. Commuters are now reluctant to return to mass mobility, and their needs have changed since pre-pandemic times. Ken Barry, Strategic Design Director at Designit Germany, asks how we can re-shape urban mobility to meet the 'new normal' needs of commuters?


What has changed?

It’s no surprise to hear commuters abandoned mass mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic.

London Transport reported a staggering 94% reduction in ridership of the Underground at the peak of the pandemic. The number of journeys for the period April 2020 to March 2021 fell by at least 63% compared with the previous year.

The same patterns are observed in other major cities around the world. The New York MTA reports subway ridership is still more than 50% lower than pre-pandemic numbers. The Berlin transport authority BVG reports sustained reductions of 33-38% depending upon the mode of transport.

There are many reasons behind these changes, from enforced lockdowns resulting in a widespread shift to WFH (work from home) arrangements to grave concerns about catching the virus whilst commuting.

As vaccination becomes widespread, many employers are considering how to bring their teams together to repair the cultural erosion that has inevitably occurred while working remotely. It is clear that most workers will not return to their offices full time; instead, the 'new normal' for many workers will be a hybrid combination of office and WFH.

So how do you re-shape commuting in urban areas to meet the 'new normal' of work and the changing needs of commuters?

Re-imagining commuting for the commuters

Traditional mass mobility infrastructure – trains, trams and buses, and their hubs and interchanges – was designed for mass mobility during peak times. With many jobs now offering more flexible working arrangements, volume is no longer the primary consideration.

Instead, those commuters now returning to their traditional workplaces are looking for urban transportation offerings that satisfy:

  • the need to maintain social distance from other commuters
  • the wish to travel efficiently at any time of day, not just in peak times
  • the option to use individual as well as mass transport modes

… and importantly, that achieve all of the above in a way that addresses the sustainability imperative of our generation.

To stay relevant, there’s an opportunity for mass mobility providers to transform their offerings to meet these new needs.

I’ve identified two key areas where mobility providers should focus to bring commuters back to mass mobility.

Journey comfort and convenience

Most city-dwellers have been on heightened alert since the pandemic hit. Between social distancing, mask-wearing, hand sanitiser and lockdown over a period of 18 months, it’s no surprise that there is a reluctance to return to mass transit.

Many people are rightly concerned about being in close proximity with other commuters. After an extended period of social distancing, they seek transport solutions that provide enough personal space and reassurance about hygiene factors, giving confidence in returning to mass mobility.

Mass transit providers have a responsibility to adapt their services to address these concerns and objections. Some have already started – for example, the Munich mass mobility authority is piloting an 'occupancy indicator' for selected services – but there’s still a long way to go.

I’d love to see mobility re-shaped to focus on passenger comfort and convenience. Some simple ideas include:

  • making the entire journey as touch-free as possible, from escalators and handrails to ticket purchasing, entry/exit and sitting/standing
  • redesigning cabin concepts to focus on space and separation
  • retrofitting ventilation and air filtration systems

My colleague Danusch Mahmoudi, Managing Director of Designit Germany, agrees. Now that the vaccination rollout is well underway, he’d be happy to use mass mobility again. However, conditions on the current service offerings are a turn-off. 'Space, fresh air, and a touch-free experience are what is needed,' clarifies Danusch, 'distance design is key to bringing commuters back.'

Enabling commuters to make informed decisions about their journeys is also a critical part of the solution. Here, you could imagine:

  • visibility of both trend and real-time data, indicating how full a service is likely to be
  • providing more frequent services to give additional flexibility and reduce urgency
  • guiding commuters to those cabins with more capacity (i.e. on trains and trams)
  • recommending alternatives that balance the journey time and the available capacity on equivalent services

Guilt-free individual mobility

Fear of infection during the pandemic drove many commuters toward individual mobility modes – cars, e-bikes, e-scooters and the like. This enabled them to avoid high-risk situations on mass mobility services.

Many of these commuters have now become accustomed to the convenience of individual mobility. And yet, it is clear that individual mobility contradicts clean mobility. Aside from traditional human-powered bikes, almost every popular individual mobility mode runs on electric power or fossil fuels.

Anecdotally, those who have shifted from mass mobility to individual mobility will most likely persist with their newly adopted individual mobility modes. In some cases, this is linked with health and fitness, although in most cases, it is due to a convenience factor. This is both understandable at a personal level and highly frustrating from a societal perspective.

Dominik Schutz, lead of Designit’s VeloHUB initiative, is turning this frustration into action. He’s dedicated over a year to developing flexible hubs for sustainable mobility, social interaction, green community spaces and micro-businesses by repurposing parking spots. The beauty of this idea is that it can help bring individual mobility and mass transit back together again. 'Each VeloHUB provides secure parking for up to 10 bikes and can be configured with charging stations, digital locks and other services,' explains Dominik. 'This fits end-of-journey scenarios, and also during a journey, enabling travellers to switch from their individual mobility to public transport and back again.'

Cities have perhaps the greatest opportunity to influence the modes used and to emphasise more sustainable choices. Rather than fighting individual mobility with new rules and tolls, we see a future that offers many choices, from which the cleanest options should be made the most attractive.

The behaviour of commuters will also play its part. Ideally, commuters will blend individual and mass mobility modes to find a sustainable balance that satisfies their mobility needs.

There’s a need for ecosystem thinking to drive toward a sustainable balance. I could imagine:

  • aggregators or mass mobility authorities providing CO2 facts about all available journey options/modes so that commuters can make their own decisions
  • cities and transport authorities collaborating to offer new pricing/usage models that prioritise the most sustainable options

Tactical measures, such as discounted or free mobility for those with vaccination passports, can also encourage a return to mass mobility in the short term.

What needs to happen next?

Ultimately, the behavioural changes that took place during the pandemic are fast becoming the new norm. Mass mobility providers and the cities within which they operate have an opportunity, and some might say, a duty, to provide innovative mobility services and experiences that address commuter concerns and drive choices that are empathetic from a sustainability perspective.

A new perspective on sustainable mass mobility must, of course, go beyond individual mobility. In an egalitarian world, mass mobility would be fully fuelled via renewables and provided without cost to all citizens. I think that that would be a compelling offer that is tough to argue with.

Our mission is complex as well as rather noble – who is up for that challenge?

About the author, Ken Barry

Passionate about mobility, Ken loves building new services and experiences together with OEMs, mass mobility providers and city authorities alike. You too?

He's worked in major cities of 13 countries and spent more than 10 years in the automotive industry before joining Designit as Strategic Design Director in Designit’s Munich studio.

A fan of most things with wheels and wings (although not necessarily together), he spends his weekends exploring nearby forests and mountains on an old-fashioned human-powered 'plus' bike. He's always open to passionate discussions, blue-sky dreaming, and extreme ideation on future mobility topics. If you feel the same, reach out to him on LinkedIn.