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Just a few months ago, European society would never have guessed that the Coronavirus sweeping through the city of Wuhan, China would one day very soon find its way to Europe and then eventually to the United States, becoming a global pandemic of a catastrophic scale. The discovery of a deadly virus has thrown the world, understandably, into a state of panic and confusion. The exponential spread of COVID-19 is not only a disaster from a health perspective: putting life on pause will have long-lasting effects on the economy, probably even long after many of us are healthy again.
Bicycles are a safe way of getting around town in the era of social distancing.
Mobility has been hit particularly hard by the crisis, for the simple reason that millions of people around the world have been asked to follow national guidelines (with varying degrees of severity) and stay home. The industry as a whole is being forced to ask existential questions: how can we, the “movers”, help a stationary world stay safe?
It’s not going to be an easy fight. Already, many mobility companies have laid off part of their staff or even shut down their operations entirely. Kickscooter sharing, as one example, saw a steady decline in ridership in many parts of the world as fears about the pandemic mounted, which eventually led to major scooter sharing player Bird laying off one-third of their team members. The valuation of their main rivals, Lime, dropped by a staggering 600% in their last funding round.
Public transportation has also seen far lower levels of ridership, as anyone living in a city who has taken a bus or train to work in the past few weeks could tell you. In fact, the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) said that public transportation in Germany has 80 - 90% fewer passengers than usual. People are naturally worried about being in close quarters with others, a logical reaction to the crisis that many assumed would be the downfall of shared mobility altogether.
How can we, the “movers”, help a stationary world stay safe?
But that’s been far from the case. Many players from all across the mobility spectrum have started to come up with creative solutions for combating COVID-19. For example, while many of us are staying home, other members of our community who provide essential services - such as healthcare workers - have been braving the outside world to commute to their place of work on a daily basis. The problem is that healthcare workers in many major European cities aren’t allowed to use public transport because they have close contact with sick patients during the day, meaning their risk of spreading infection is very high. In these specific cases, personal vehicle sharing options present themselves as a safe alternative to public shared offerings.
The dangerous commutes of healthcare workers helped mobility companies recognize a need going unfulfilled and an opportunity to give back to their local communities. Pre-crisis, many operating zones of mobility companies excluded hospitals for safety and practical reasons; now, the same companies have extended their zones to include important institutions and are offering free or discounted rides to healthcare personnel to ensure a safe, fast commute. Sixt is offering 100€ vouchers to doctors and nurses in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, which is designed to last healthcare workers around 10 trips to work and back. Swedish kickscooter sharing company Voi is strategically placing many of their vehicles near hospitals, while removing them from the streets elsewhere.
When players from across the spectrum work together, they’re capable of moving the world.
In Hamburg, where trains, as previously mentioned, are running infrequently, the shuttle service company MOIA started offering free rides at night, between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., to cover the train and bus lines that no longer run and so people who work the night shift (like many nurses and other healthcare workers) can still get to work on time. Of course, local governments and city officials have also been proactively responding to the crisis: the city of London is offering healthcare workers a three-month bicycle loan to help them commute safely while maintaining social distance, and others are offering discounted ticket rates.
Mobility companies have also been using technology to its full advantage. Some sharing companies are quelling hygienic fears by taking extra precautions to sanitize vehicles after every use. A special icon will appear in the map view of their mobile apps so that riders can see how recently a vehicle has been cleaned and sanitized. Bird also released an in-app feature that allows riders to see which restaurants in their local community of Santa Monica, California are open and offering takeout or delivery.
Restaurants all over the world have been instructed to offer out-of-house services only, and many small businesses are struggling to stay above water as a result. In fact, many restaurants didn’t offer deliveries pre-crisis, and weren’t in a position to move to a 100% delivery model as soon as the situation started getting worse. Recognizing the organizational and financial difficulties that come with switching to a new business concept, fleet sharing companies such as felyx, who (usually) offer B2C scooter sharing in the Benelux region, quickly updated their software and their operations to allow for deliveries. Shortly thereafter, they made part of their fleet available to small businesses who were otherwise at a loss for both vehicles and capital to purchase a fleet of their own. Greenmobility, the largest car sharing company in Denmark, is offering their fleet to local restaurants for a discounted rate of 250 KR or about 30€ for six hours of drive time.
In these “uncertain times”, that ubiquitous phrase that seems to be crossing everyone’s lips and email inboxes these days, the mobility industry has come together to prove two very important things: one, if different players from across the spectrum work together - particularly the private sector, where many companies are quite selflessly working for zero return on investment - they’re capable of moving the world when it matters most; two, there’s never a reason to give up hope or to stop exploring solutions and ideas that might help make the world a safer, healthier place.
A lot of work has already been done in the past couple of years in encouraging individuals to “make the switch” to shared mobility and drive or purchase fewer cars for personal use. Only time will tell if the Coronavirus outbreak will reverse this positive trend after the outside world becomes officially safe again, or if many view personal car ownership in a favorable lens again.
If there’s one thing the mobility industry is good at, it’s moving quickly.
But one of the biggest mistakes the industry can make is postulate about the future and try to start “predicting” what life (and mobility) will look like post-virus. After all, we’re only at the very beginning of the crisis. All of the initiatives mentioned here were enacted within the past three weeks, as of this writing.
It’s tempting to start guessing what’s going to happen next just to create a sort of false sense of stability, particularly when it becomes harder and harder to plan for the future with each passing day, but mobility would be doing the world a disservice by making plans based on assumptions at a time when absolute truth is very hard to come by. Instead, we should continue to brainstorm flexible solutions that can be acted on quickly and efficiently when they’re needed. The Coronavirus may know no speed limits, but if there’s one thing the mobility industry is good at, it’s moving quickly.