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COVID-19’s Long-Term Impact on Mobility

The pandemic has dramatically reduced ridership on public transit in most of the world. But once the pandemic ends, will the public go back to using public transport or not? And what about electrification of transport and other initiatives — how have they been impacted by COVID?

Jinhua Zhao, leads MIT’s work on mobility and consumer behavior. He says there are likely to be different responses in different parts of the world.

ZHAO: In the short term, there has been a global suppression of mobility. Public transit was hit the most, and in the recovery you’ll find that the private car side comes back more quickly and the transit less so.

We spent many years promoting sustainable transportation — walking, cycling and public transit — and we achieved some progress there. But unfortunately, COVID has pushed this back a few years. Particularly with public transit, and a concerted effort is needed to reinvigorate our attention to sustainable transportation.

Big Difference Between US and Asia Response




Electrification Is Moving Forward Faster in Asia

BRINK:Do you think that the big trends that we saw before COVID, electrification, autonomous vehicles, de-carbonization, are still on track?

ZHAO: Electrification is reaching a tipping point. The U.S. is leading the technology, but lagging behind Asia in implementation. In some Chinese cities, for example, it will soon get to a point where it is almost impossible to buy an internal combustion engine car. You have to buy a green energy vehicle.

The contrast is even starker on the electrification of public transit. The U.S. currently has about 600 battery electric buses running around across the country. In China, there are 500,000 such buses operating. So the U.S. is behind in both aspects, but in public transit, it’s a different order of magnitude. That’s a lot of catching up to do.

BRINK:And what about autonomous vehicles? Do you think that’s been knocked off course by COVID at all?

ZHAO: People’s rosy anticipation of autonomous vehicles was dampened a bit even before COVID. Many companies修订了预计的时间of how many cars would be on the ground running, et cetera. COVID has a negative impact on people’s preference for sharing a ride and, therefore, the business model of fleet based shared autonomous service. But its impact on the automation technology per se is not that clear.

COVID offers a forceful natural experiment at scale and challenges a lot of the stigma around working from home, while also revealing its limitations.

Will People Be Comfortable Sharing Space?

If you increase the occupancy and operate the automobile as a fleet, it’s possible for autonomous vehicles to play a very positive role, but the question is: Will passengers be willing to share rides?

Today, with a Taxi or UberPool, the presence of the driver defines the social setting, which helps to reduce the anxiety of sharing rides with strangers. But, in autonomous vehicles, it’s just a machine that comes by for two strangers to share a small and confined space of the same vehicle — that’s actually a mode of social interaction that we have never experienced before, though it may be easier to encourage shared rides in vans.

BRINK:在家工作的问题 - 是对交通行为的长期影响吗?


Some people may want to go to the office three days a week or two days a week. You will see the whole spectrum of time working at a home versus working at an office.

Another factor is that the office does not have to be downtown in a big office block. Many companies are starting to say, we could have a satellite office in the suburban areas, or small town centers.

Companies Are Key Decision-Makers

And that relates to another important thing, who is the decision-maker here? We often recognize the individual as the decision-maker — we decide to travel by bus or by car. And often, the city also, as a body making a lot of decisions in putting in infrastructure, regulations, a tax, et cetera.

But less discussed is the employer as a decision-maker.

For example, take Kendall Square close to MIT, where there are a hundred different companies. The share of commuting by car can vary from 20% to 60% yet it is the same location, same access to infrastructure and similar employee pool.

What determines the difference is the employer. Some companies on day one might say to an employee, “Oh, here’s free parking for you.” If there’s free parking, it destroys almost any hope of people getting out of their car. But then another employer could say, “You can buy parking, or we can offer a free transit pass.”

Corporations can be the key innovator here. COVID offers a forceful natural experiment at scale and challenges a lot of the stigma around working from home, while also revealing its limitations. Companies have already invested in work from home, both in hardware, software and processes, and learned so much of what works and what does not.

Corporations are thinking through this process at the moment: When COVID is over, do they bring everybody back? Do they bring them back by phases? Do we start innovating in terms of the spectrum of locations and times, and how do we combine them? Companies need to rethink the entire workflow and its relationship with space. These will all have impacts on mobility.

Jinhua Zhao


金华赵是Edward和Joyce Linde副教授的城市和交通规划,以及董事Mobility Initiative在the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Zhao brings behavioral science and transportation technology together to shape travel behavior, design mobility system and reform urban policies.

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