When COVID-19 struck, it caused unprecedented disruption to urban transport systems. Stay-at-home and social distancing orders had dramatic impacts on urban mobility. Cities around the world ground to a halt, and many saw a sudden and prolonged emptying out of urban centres. In this blog Dr Andy Lockhart, Prof Mike Hodson and Prof Andy McMeekin consider how digital platforms were deployed in response to the pandemic and what this might mean for how urban mobility systems are governed in the future.
- At the same time as COVID-19 created significant challenges for public transport, the use of digital platforms in urban settings has accelerated, intensified and shape-shifted.
- New deployments of private digital platforms in particular raise questions about how urban mobility will be governed by public authorities in the future.
- However, the pandemic also illuminated opportunities to mobilise platforms for enhanced universal service provision and the common good – in particular using urban mobility data and integrative capacities of mobility-as-a-service systems (MaaS) built around public transport networks.
- In order realise this potential, urban transport authorities will need significantly greater powers, resources and expertise to create and operate urban MaaS platforms as public utilities.
Debates about the future of urban mobility have turned on the implications of experiments designed to combat COVID-19 while maintaining the circulation of people, goods and services. This included interventions such as the introduction of new disinfection regimes, the creation of temporary cycle lanes and a mass shift to remote working and at-home service provision. In a new report, we examine the role of digital platforms in shaping this changing landscape, identifying trends with potentially far-reaching implications for the future of urban transport which raise important questions for urban transport authorities and policymakers.
Digital platforms and urban mobility
Transport authorities were already facing major challenges around how to keep cities moving against a backdrop of congestion, air pollution, budget cuts, creaking infrastructure and the need for rapid decarbonisation. In recent years, digital mobility platforms have emerged offering ‘on-demand’ services in cities where mobility was traditionally organised around public transport and private cars. Platforms such as Uber, Lime and Citymapper focused on urban centres where they compete or collaborate with established operators.
The ‘platformisation’ of urban transport follows different paths in different cities. These paths are shaped by the specific place-based combinations of technologies involved, different mixes of public, private and civil society interests, and wider institutional and regulatory contexts. Their trajectories are not fixed; they mutate and evolve over time in response to changing conditions, interventions and experimentation. With this in mind, we ask how urban mobility is being reconfigured – and whether it can be shaped by public transport authorities.
Platformisation in response to COVID-19
As our report shows, digital platforms were used extensively in response to the pandemic’s impact on urban mobility. Platforms have been central to the rapid rollout of ‘contactless’ systems, as well as digital prompting and verification that new cleaning, face-covering and ventilation protocols are observed.
Digital platforms have similarly been used to monitor and control flows of passengers and vehicles across public transport networks. Companies like Cityswift have promoted their products as facilitating social distancing while also reducing the costs of operators by enabling more demand-responsive scheduling of services.
While these responses aimed to mitigate impacts of COVID-19 on existing services, platform-based experiments also offered ready-made alternatives. Bike-sharing and e-scooter providers capitalised on anxieties about public transport by offering ‘COVID-safe’ alternatives, supported by local and national governments. In a more conducive regulatory environment, micro-mobility platforms have ridden a wave of renewed investment optimism. Voi raised £142m in late 2020 to consolidate its place in the UK and Europe, while US firm Bird saw its revenue rise by 43% to record levels in the second quarter of 2021 compared to 2019 and announced expansion into 50 new cities – despite the collapse of income in early 2020.
Mobility platforms were used to establish new services by redeploying existing vehicles and infrastructure to meet needs created by the pandemic. Zeelo repurposed its platform to offer bespoke key worker group transport in the face of less reliable bus services, while ride-hailing companies like Grab were able to rapidly switch function from passenger to delivery services. Digital platforms played a key role in enabling many to work from home, reducing the need for urban travel. This included not only the rise of Zoom – which saw daily users jump from 10m to 300m in spring 2020 – but also the growth of home entertainment, e-commerce and q-commerce platforms which facilitated the so-called ‘Zoomshock’ and a reversal in flows of work, shopping and consumption to people’s homes rather than city centres.
Finally, efforts to integrate different biosecurity measures and new mobility services into the changing landscape of urban transport have advanced through renewed interest in single mobility-as-a-service platforms. Although many faced difficulties as a result of the collapse in public transport use, many transport authorities have seen integrated journey-planning, booking and ticketing platforms as opportunities to exert greater systemwide control and influence over travel behaviour.
Implications for the future of urban mobility
In the report, we argue these diverse platform-based responses to COVID-19 are likely to have long-term impacts which urban policymakers and transport authorities will need to confront. Firstly, the shock to urban mobility poses serious challenges to agglomeration thinking – i.e. the prioritisation of dense city centres for investment – which has dominated urban transport policy and planning in recent decades. COVID-19 and platform-mediated adaptations highlighted uncertainties in how cities and towns might be organised in the future. Finding ways to respond to changing patterns of mobility must be a pressing strategic concern for urban transport authorities and policymakers.
Secondly, COVID-19 and platform-based responses are accelerating trends in urban transport, such as growing pressures on public transport operators and the capacity of cities to offer universal services. Between 2010 and 2019, funding for buses was cut by 40% and 3,000 routes were lost or reduced in England. Many operators only survived the dramatic loss of revenue caused by COVID-19 due to government bailouts. Despite mitigation measures, the shift in mobility behaviour means passenger numbers remain well below pre-pandemic levels. Without significant investment, services will inevitably be cut further. The pandemic also intensified the degree of surveillance and datafication of urban transport, bringing concerns about the use and governance of urban mobility data, but also opportunities for strategic planning.
This is more important in an increasingly fragmented urban landscape of work, mobility and transport provision, marked by rising inequality, all of which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. While alternative forms of private platform-based mobility experimented with over the past 18 months show potential in filling gaps in infrastructure provision, they tend to skew towards privileged urban areas and communities – alongside increasingly degraded public transport networks for those with few alternatives.
Finally, responses to the pandemic revealed opportunities for transport authorities to intervene and mobilise platforms to strategically shape urban mobility for the common good. Although MaaS remains aspirational in most contexts, integrating different modes of transport and infrastructure demonstrably has considerable potential. The critical issue is how these platforms are governed – especially who owns and operates them and for what purpose. This similarly applies to opportunities to make strategic use of platform-generated urban mobility data, where much of the required expertise and capacity currently resides in the hands of private operators.
An alternative model involves the urban transport authority maintaining operational and decision-making control over a platform provided by a third-party developer – for example, Berlin’s Jelbi system. This allows for more strategic interventions and selective integration of different mobility providers around public transport networks. However, urban transport authorities in the UK clearly need significantly greater power, resources and expertise. In the context of today’s mobility challenges – from providing universal provision to the need for rapid decarbonisation – such capabilities are urgently needed.
Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.