Cities have been severely impacted by COVID-19 on a number of fronts, and it has laid bare the severe disparities that result from ever-dwindling budgets. The pandemic has also dramatically changed how we experience the urban environment and required us to re-envision how people navigate and interact with their locales.
On a regional basis, commutes to central business districts have dropped dramatically, while surrounding town centers, however small they may be, have gained more activity. For the privileged, who have the ability to shelter-in-place and are supported by flexible work-from-home policies, trips have become more concentrated near their homes and rarely reach beyond neighborhood amenities. As a result, open-street networks have blossomed to allow more space for walking and biking, and cities have pivoted to allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining and retail areas into the public right-of-way (ROW). A map released by Lime, a scooter-share company, showed that, over the summer of 2020, trips have become more concentrated within neighborhoods, rather than sprawling across the city. Meanwhile, Apple Mobility Data showed that private driving returned to pre-COVID levels, after a brief reprieve in April 2020, while transit ridership is still well below normal.
It is clear that this crisis has impacted communities in very different ways. While central business district commutes might have fallen during the pandemic, cross-town trips persisted, and these are more representative of essential workers’ routes. Cities have adjusted their transit systems, cutting some routes in order to ensure more resources for higher volume routes, or contracting out late night or expanded service areas in order to ensure that all customers can be continuously served.
These changes in transportation patterns should inform how we analyze and address old problems. A longstanding challenge has been how to meet the growing transportation demand across an entire region and during traditionally off-peak times, while also ensuring that neighborhoods, town centers, and other nodes outside of the central business district can be supported with sustainable mobility options. Historically, and more than ever today, the most convenient way to travel within a region is by private car. But, as we look forward to a post-pandemic public realm, could emerging mobility technologies help?
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures. As we all witnessed in the last decade, technological innovation (like transportation network companies and micro-mobility) has triggered a profound transformation of the urban mobility ecosystem, enabling new shared, on-demand, and multi-modal transportation options. By being open to new technologies in the realms of both operations and vehicles, transit agencies can establish a more resilient and sustainable urban mobility ecosystem and even remove some of the friction in payment and trip-planning.
We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs.
Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?