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What will post-Covid public transport commute look like?

Health expectations mean days of packed public transport appear numbered

It is time to talk about public transport and the commute.

Pre-Covid, I well remember squeezing into standing-room-only Dublin Bus double-deckers. Outside, the rain inevitably plummeted down the winter darkness. Inside, the window panes would weep with condensation, frosting the glass in wet mist, the air heavily muggy with the exhalations of my fellow commuters. Open a window? Protests from damp co-travellers.

Greasy handrails, but we would share them regardless, steadily clutching through the lurches. Whether bus, train, Luas or Dart, commuting by public transport was snugly, damply, unhealthily communal.

But, pre-Covid, maybe we were doing the planet some good by keeping our cars out of the commute. After all, a double-decker could take 90 or so of us out of our vehicles and efficiently deliver us more or less where we wanted to go.


Now, Covid-emergent, are we going to simply mask up into winter commutes and confidently jostle ourselves back into the packed humidity, breathing poorly-circulated air and grasping at communal handrails?

Perhaps. But airborne pathogens continue to threaten, potentially including new Covid variants emerging from the vast proportion of still-unvaccinated humanity worldwide. Entirely new pandemics could also well erupt, as some scientists and epidemiologists are warning.

But neither can we simply abandon public transport and all jump back into private cars. How will commuting emerge post-Covid, and thus how should city strategists plan for the future?

Health expectations have changed and are moving towards private hybrid and electric mobility, not only to cars but also to e-bikes and scooters

The pandemic has shown us that remote working is much more feasible than perhaps most of us previously realised. Many have become much more comfortable than we might ever have imagined not just with cloud-based document and spreadsheet software, but also with video-conferencing (such as Zoom, GoToMeeting and others), collaborative messaging tools (such as Slack and Discord) and even distributed project tools (such as Trello and Teamwork).

Nevertheless, working at home isolated from co-workers is often not ideal. Office workers now seek a work-life balance in which we can sometimes collaborate from home, but also then in dedicated work settings away from domestic interruptions.

Rather than macro-commuting all the way to and from central city offices, micro-commuting between home and work hubs in the suburbs and the regions may become even more important for recruitment and retention for employers. Old work practices will need to be adjusted.

Is there a role for staggered work hours? After all, near-empty multi-tonne public vehicles continue their polluting journeys outside the commute periods. Maybe it would be better to stagger the working day, with commutes safely socially distanced over multiple hours in partially-filled public vehicles. Unfortunately, a composite working day is probably impractical for much of the public and private sector.

Regardless, it would seem that the days of high-density packed public transport must now end. Health expectations have changed and are moving towards private hybrid and electric mobility, not only to cars but also to e-bikes and scooters.

For urban planners, grounded in stable, predictable trends over decade-long cycles, work patterns are changing fast and in uncertain ways. Covid and climate change are forcibly resetting society. Practices that used to be accepted and unquestioned are no longer the axioms on which analysts can reliably plan for the future. How should city administrators and transport companies respond?

Digital tools

The Open Mobility Foundation (OMF) was founded in July 2019 as a collaborative public forum of city administrations and companies to share best practices and to develop digital tools for transport infrastructures. There are currently about 40 city members, primarily in the United States, but Europe is also represented by Bergen, Dublin and Ulm.

Originally focused on electric bike and scooter programmes, and city-run bus services, the consortium is extending its work to shared electric cars. A new working group has been recently established, on the dynamic management of roadside curbs for loading zones, on-demand pick-up and delivery, and for temporary closures.

The group collaboratively manages the “mobility data specification” (MDS), originally developed by the Los Angeles department of transport and then seeded into the OMF. This is an open-source portfolio of specifications and software code primarily to help regulators and administrators manage transport infrastructures. Cities can analyse both current and historic traffic patterns, and can more easily manage and change rules for how and where different vehicles can safely operate, responding to real time events such as congestion, weather conditions and accidents.

The OMF bylaws assert that privacy of data relating to individuals, and their use of transport, is a key requirement. There is an active committee specifically dedicated to privacy, security and transparency.

MDS potentially benefits private companies and start-ups since they can develop services and products which will work to common standards across multiple city administrations. More than 100 cities, both OMF members and non-members, are now working with the specification. In uncertain times, with a changing global outlook and societal attitudes to health and work, sharing best practice can only stimulate innovation.