The New Meaning of Safety for Local Travel

by Alexandra Pacurar

While the way we move around the city has always needed to be safe, the coronavirus outbreak has given this dimension a whole new meaning. A meaning that is likely to—directly or indirectly—impact its other three verticals: cost, time and environmental impact. So, how will safety change the way we get about?

The media has recently started discussing how cars are, again, taking over cities around the globe as they reopen. People's desire to respect social distancing measures and avoid interaction with others have led to increased traffic. This is supported by Apple data for 27 cities around the globe, which shows that driving levels are growing the fastest, compared to walking or mass transit. In San Francisco, for example, by analyzing driving directions requests, Apple data reveals that driving is now just 20 percent below normal levels compared to public transit, which is 69 percent lower than regularly. If we look at cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, morning traffic is now higher than the average numbers of 2019, while subway use is well below normal, according to recent research by BloombergNEF.

Some companies that have resumed office work are requesting that employees avoid buses and trains, and opt for other ways to get to work. Capacity is another issue that encourages driving, since most public transit systems are not operating at full capacity and are limiting the number of passengers that get access. The reason? Safety, again. People need to be six feet apart, respect the new stickers in vehicles indicating either distance or the seats that shouldn’t be occupied, as well as wear masks. Standing won’t be allowed by many transport agencies who also recommend that riders avoid peak hours. In addition, getting on and off the bus will happen through the rear door to protect drivers.

There are cities that put tech to work in order for better planning and organization of the public transportation system. For example, Auckland’s transport agency is using its mobile app to let everyone know how many people are on a bus or train at any given time, so riders will know if social distancing is achievable before they get on. Also, every bus will display the number of passengers it can take on.

All vehicles will undergo cleaning and disinfecting operations more often, which will translate into increased costs. The same will apply to shared ride providers, which will also deal with increased costs and losses in this period. Riders will be skeptical to share the back seat with a stranger and some might even reconsider being driven by someone in a car that has been used by several others who needed to get from A to B. Others will be reluctant in riding a bike or a scooter that was just used and then docked.

Still, experts believe that micromobility—scooters and e-bikes—might actually be one of the big winners of the new safety-in-transit battle. There are several reasons behind this expectation:

  • hygiene operations are easier and can be done by the rider
  • demand for open air, single-occupancy transport is up
  • vehicles are used and parked out in the open, which decreases chances of contamination
  • this is a greener transport alternative that requires no human interaction

Micromobility companies such as Tier and Bolt are already providing new, self-cleaning handlebars that are more resistant to bacteria thanks to the materials they are made of. Tier offers scooters with handlebars made of a copper fleece material that reportedly kills 99.8 percent of bacteria as part of its efforts to step up its safety game. The company also offers foldable helmets that are disinfected after every five trips.

In addition to increased safety and hygiene measures, another trend in the industry is leasing and sales. Riders can lease the electric two-wheeled vehicles based on a monthly subscription. For example, Bolt provides packages starting at $99/month, offering riders a safer and greener commute, as the COVID-19 risk still lingers. Each user will get a contactless delivery of the scooter to their preferred location. Riders can also buy a Bolt electric scooter—charger, helmet and lock, included—for $1,000. The vehicles have an average lifespan of two years, according to data from Bolt.

Local governments are also getting into the leasing trend. The Grand Rapids City Commission approved a one-year micromobility pilot program for e-bikes and e-scooters with two companies—Charleston, S.C.-based Gotcha and San Francisco-based Spin. The official launch is scheduled for August or September, with leasing as a viable option.

While some were quick to declare the micromobility trend as going extinct due to the coronavirus outbreak, moves in the market point to a regrouping-and-reviving business strategy. After all major players announced layoffs, news broke that Uber led a $170 million funding round led for Lime. Alphabet’s venture arm GV and Bain Capital also participated. The deal led to an 80 percent drop in valuation to $510 million for Lime, which now also owns Uber’s bike and scooter business, Jump.

Safety is, in the end, a very personal issue for which each individual should take his/her own share of responsibility. Authorities and local governments will apply a set of measures, but it is highly improbable that it will provide complete protection. So, the way this transition period plays out is up to each of us, the respect we carry for one another and the impact our decisions will have on our communities and the planet.