The Near Future Of Mobility

new trends, smartphones, suburbia

Will Transportation Be Healthier After the Pandemic?

This is a cartoon of a teleworker surrounded by screens of other teleworkers...somewhat like Zoom. The source is
illustration by Jayacjandran/Mint

How will the pandemic remake our choices for housing and transportation? As millions of urban workers stay at home full-time and telecommute, they might re-imagine whether it is better to live in metropolitan areas or more physically distant places.

At the time of this posting, late March 2020, the Covid-19  virus ravages and it is too early to discern new trends for transportation and housing. But, we strongly believe there will be systemic change.  Like the virus itself, there are unknown and latent forces at play that undermine our current ways of travel. 

Everyday Travel Anew:

Here we reimagine the everyday trips, like commuting to work or chauffeuring kids and how these trips are woven into the fabric of where we choose to live. These are the short-distance, routine trips, not the big ones for vacation or business meetings.

Our country has been divided on where to live and how to travel. While the Boomer generation has mostly remained in suburban and rural locations, the stereotype is that younger people have traded open space to live in more urban settings. It is actually a more complex geo-issue, but is is fair to say that the younger generation has thus far shunned older suburban homes and more rural neighborhoods. The exact reasons are unclear, but there has been a desire to live differently than their parents and to be close-in for proximity to work, social events, and recreation.  As a result, it is considerably more expensive to rent or purchase residential property in the major cities and inner suburbs. Since 2010, and earlier, the price of space has rocketed in major U.S. cities, but stayed stable and even declined in outer suburbs.

The Covid crisis may shift the balance:  Suburban homes may come into favor. When people work from home, do they may prefer a multi-functional home with more space, and higher affordability?

The Covid virus has unearthed two major factors that propel changes in how we work and where we choose to live: 

Telework in a Time of Crisis:

Telework may have finally achieved its defining moment during the Covid-19 pandemonium. There have been two enablers:  Telework is bandwidth intensive. Under normal circumstances, usage might have slowly ratcheted upward until the 5G home network expanded. Before Covid, A recent estimate was that 5 million employees, about 3.6% of the workforce worked from home at least half the time. Now the quarantine has changed the numbers and demonstrated that Zoom and similar software services are workable even if there are occasional freeze-ups or asynchronous conversations. It has not replaced the social talks over the water-cooler but it has encouraged other communication channels to develop, like Slack.

The other enabler has been a critical mass of workers:  teleworkers need fellow teleworkers to dispel the notion that home-based colleagues loaf around and are less effective. Telework is far from new but typically gains traction after a national crisis. Following the September 11 attacks, it was officially mandated for many government employees.

The New Dynamics of Space:

While the trend is positive for teleworking, staying at home in a digitized, connected household brings a contradictory force into play.  Call it the dynamics of space. 

During the Covid quarantine, indoor square footage and outdoor play areas take on greater need for families with small children underfoot, roommates wanting a quiet place to take a Skype video, or couples who find that they have too much intimacy and not enough privacy. In North America, unlike Europe or parts of Asia, there is a plethora of suburban housing stock and open lands. 

This has important implications for everyday routine travel,  because in North America suburban homes are often beyond the reach of public transportation. Attending school grades K through 12, shopping at the grocery store, going to places of worship, and of course, going to the traditional factory, office, or job, each require a trip. Interestingly, people who live in rural areas drive about 10 miles more per day than those in the suburbs or cities, but the average for cities is just a few miles less than the suburbs. The time to travel and the subjective quality of the travel experience remain pivotal.

However, if people begin to choose further away homes that require more routine travel trips in the car, they face an essential conflict for sustainability and climate change. The early weeks of the Covid quarantine, have already shown how reductions in vehicle travel produce measurable  improvements to air quality. 

If younger generations do choose to live in further out suburbs, it seems unlikely that keeping “2.3” cars per household will be the norm.To date, younger people have gotten their licenses later and many still shun driving. This is a generation accustomed to using a smartphone to order groceries and having take-out come to their door.

There will still be private household cars, but fewer of them. One household member, or all, will be able to telecommute. Other services that used to require outside trips will continue to be online, like gyms and after-school classes. That said, the desire to socialize and create out-of-home experiences will lead to new destinations and activities.

However, a more utilitarian view of automobile ownership is likely to emerge, ‘everyday travel as a service’, rather than cars as ‘marketing expression’. The same sentiment will tend to favor vehicles that are cleaner, less carbon intensive, and perhaps smaller. There are other modes that will gain ground too, and here we consider three of them:

Bikes with Batteries:

During the pandemonium, bicycle use has surged by 67 percent in New York City as people seek social distance and shun mass transit. We don’t have comparable rates for other places. But, the electric bike, still not widely available for many, is a substitute for mid- range car trips, say five to 10 miles.  Electric bicycles can be configured for all age groups and packaged as a healthy alternative. These hybrid bikes can also carry their fair share of packages and small goods. However, an accelerated growth curve for electric bikes will depend on a critical mass of riders lobbying their state and local DOTs to provide safer, dedicated travel lanes.  

Buses with Intelligence:

Most suburbs and rural areas lack for bus transportation. The exception are older cities, in the Northeast and Midwest.  Fortunately, telecommunication will change multi-rider options. Software and telecommunications sweep in an era of change to 100 year old jitney, schedule-tied, route-tied service. On-demand transportation is faster, cheaper, and more personalized that operating fixed route buses or vans. It is yet unclear whether these services will be operated by private companies, like Via or Uber, or by local government, say in lieu of public transit, or both.

Vehicles with Intelligence and Batteries:

Finally, on the horizon for choices about where we will live and how we will work is the big ‘A’, the Autonomous Vehicle. The trend to telework coincides nicely with the Autonomous Vehicle, since they each take the pain out of distance. Even before the Covid pandemic,  popular scenarios envisioned that autonomous, self-driving vehicles would accelerate the move away from cities into more rural areas. Many scenarios also imagined that these vehicles displace regional trips by train or airplane. Recently, the term “auto-shlaffen” was dubbed for cars that you might sleep in. “Tele-commuters” would be even more whimsical; regular teleworkers that now work from the car instead of from the home or remote office! 

The Threaded Future:

Transportation technology is changing rapidly. During the past decade Uber and Lyft disrupted the status quo with modern telecommunications. They have helped us imagine a future world with less private car ownership, more integrated multi-modal options, and personalized travel itineraries. Less than five year ago micro-mobility began to provide more travel options, again from its backbone in telecommunications. Since the beginning of 2020, many new users have begun to telecommute instead of traveling to their work. The pandemic is helping us revisit both how we work and how we use our homes. Our sudden and extreme dependence on telecommunications may open the gateway to a new balance among housing, transportation, and daily activities.