Social distancing, safety, sanitisation: solutions for post-lockdown commute

As Indian cities battle COVID-19 and work under an extended lockdown, WRI India spoke to new mobility enterprises to understand the impact on companies, and the future of commuting with such mobility models in the ‘new normal’.

India is taking tentative steps to emerge out of the lockdown that brought the economy to a screeching halt, an essential step, even though the country’s COVID-19 tally crossed the one-lakh barrier and is yet to peak. The associated costs of both the lockdown and the pandemic are high — CRISIL Research forecasts a four percent permanent loss to real Indian GDP, which, if it holds, is expected to return to normal only by 2022.

Reopening the country will require providing safe travel for people going back to their daily routines. Transport providers will need to adapt their service models, focussing on hygiene and safety measures, and managing crowds.

Currently, commuters are looking for alternatives to public transportation, as worries about crowds and an associated increase in the risk of exposure grow; this, in turn, could possibly lead to a rise in private vehicles with low occupancies on roads. However, it remains that not many will be able to buy vehicles owing to various factors, a significant one being affordability.

Given this, new mobility companies, such as operators of ride-hailing apps, vehicle-sharing networks, and route planners, are poised to become a more sought-after option in the post-lockdown commute.

While flexibility and convenience have always been key selling propositions for these companies, now there is a window for them to capitalise on new demand and give commuters a safe and (ideally) affordable option of travelling. The key is in rebuilding customer confidence.

To offer reliable solutions to commuters, there is a need to understand the impact of the pandemic and a subsequent series of lockdowns on the new mobility businesses and the way forward for their companies, and transportation.

Changing course

Due to the lockdown and the associated travel restrictions, many of these companies had to change their core operations to capitalise on new sources of demand. Previously, passenger-only enterprises pivoted to services such as delivery and logistics, and are expected to continue to do so even once restrictions are fully lifted. Others are looking at whether they can integrate models of transporting both goods and people.

Shared mobility models are reassessing how to re-price their services considering social distancing norms. Other measures some new mobility companies have taken to weather the lockdown include moving from short-term rentals to long-term leases, which brings in added revenue and uses vehicles more efficiently.

As preventive government policies (such as odd/even vehicle use and limiting staff at offices) are rolled out, it may be hard to predict what commuting will be like. A few mobility organisations are offering the use of their data-based platforms to help plan and space out the movement of passengers and goods to avoid overcrowding.

These would be beneficial especially for institutions requiring a high volume of trips, such as commercial clusters, universities and schools, and residential complexes.

Hygiene and safety

The virus can spread easily, and some people don’t even show symptoms. COVID-19 can survive on different surfaces as well, which presents potential challenges in transportation, given the number of touchpoints and the close proximity of passengers. New mobility companies are exploring social distancing and increasing sanitisation of vehicles to boost customer confidence.

Social distancing norms have been implemented by limiting the number of passengers in vehicles, using signs and markers to demarcate where to sit, using technology to book prepaid tickets (reducing the need for physical cash-based transactions), and physically separating passenger and driver areas with transparent film.

Companies have also been ensuring that vehicles, seats, high-contact surfaces, and equipment (like helmets) are sanitised after every trip, and that covers and seals are used to avoid infectious particles.

This is important for rental services, where it can be hard to track if a vehicle is contaminated or not. Many mobility rental providers are looking to address this by sharing information on when the vehicle was last sanitised and keeping the fleet under supervision between rides, which will help build trust among commuters.

A new normal

Researchers from Singapore University of Technology and Design predict a second wave of infections if new cases are not effectively traced and isolated. As commuting in cities generally involves more than one mode of transport, it is essential for public and private transport operators to work and provide solutions that allow people to move safely through the city.

New mobility models can spearhead innovation by adapting their operations to the new normal and leveraging their data and technology edge to provide sustainable and safe transport options.

The pandemic has necessitated a lot of changes for the industry, from basic revenue and cost implications to having fewer passengers onboard to increasing cleaning and sterilisation. We believe even more innovative solutions will emerge as new mobility companies try to build back lost ground in these unchartered conditions.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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