Tim Slusser smaller for web

Tim Slusser
Director, Smart Mobility Initiatives
NextEnergy

In Michigan, the stay-at-home order was called Stay Home Stay Safe. In California, it was called Shelter in Place. As the quarantine continued for weeks, we went from wondering how much the pandemic would change our way of life to considering how we approach planning for our new normal. At the time of writing, Michigan approaches its 12th and final week under the Stay Home Stay Safe order. There has been a lot of uncertainty about this virus and now that we begin to lift restrictions, do we have enough certainty to find our new mobility normal? Here are a few of my takeaways to help shape a discussion on this topic.

Public transportation has suffered a significant setback. The lack of revenue caused by months of stay-at-home orders has put a substantial financial strain on regional networks across the country. The CARES Act, signed into law March 2020, included more than $26 billion in financial support for transit and intercity rail service. Transit agencies have already responded to COVID-19 by adopting flexible routes, increasing communications and enacting new procedures to limit exposure for employees and riders. In addition, some agencies have also eliminated fare collection and enforcement to prevent people from gathering around ticketing stations and reduce interactions between the driver and passengers. Despite these changes, transit agencies still face substantial budget deficits and uncertain state budgets. Last month, leaders from transit agencies in five states called upon the federal government to provide an additional $33 billion in financial relief for public transportation.

Mobility service provider and single-occupancy vehicle usage appear poised to grow. Many speculate that commuters will now prefer driving their own vehicle to riding on public transit. For those without access to a car, some individuals may feel more comfortable using a ridesharing service rather than taking public transit. While this certainly will not be true for all commuters, even a small percentage can provide significant growth for mobility service providers and negatively impact public transit.

Delivery services had a chance to shine. Companies such as DoorDash, Uber Eats, Shipt, and Grubhub experienced significant increases in numbers of users during the pandemic. One news article I found said spending on meal delivery services was up 70 percent year-over-year in the last week of March 2020. There was even a local news story about how a robotic food delivery service was busier than ever. While I did not personally use any of these services — I did A LOT of cooking at home — I saw these organizations delivering goods and food to my neighbors quite often.

Healthy mobility options became hugely popular. Did you try to buy a bicycle during the pandemic? The bicycle sections of my local stores were completely sold out. I could not buy a helmet unless I wanted a pink toddler helmet with a unicorn horn. (I passed.) A quick review of Amazon revealed prices that appeared to be much higher than I recalled recently. It is possible many lower-priced options were sold out. Even new bike seats were either too expensive or backordered. I was fortunate enough to have had a working bicycle at home, and I rode more in the last three months than I ever have. In fact, I rode my bike or walked nearly every day during lunch for the last three months. And I was not the only one in my neighborhood to do so.

The pandemic proved many of us can work from home. Although some teleconferencing tools had some difficulty adjusting to the new demand, they quickly proved to be sufficiently reliable for meeting with team members and clients. Many organizations will likely expand their work-from-home policies, which could have a significant impact on commuting patterns and mobility needs for those workers. NextEnergy is reviewing its policies and examining how to incorporate more work-from-home opportunities in the future. In the near term, working from home continues to provide opportunities for physical distancing, which is important because employee health and safety needs to remain a top priority.

The elderly and disabled did not have the same mobility opportunities. Stores that remained open during the pandemic tried to provide dedicated shopping hours for the elderly, but this was an imperfect system and sometimes difficult to enforce. Assisted living facilities were forced to take extreme precautions to try and protect the most vulnerable, and this led many facilities to be locked down where friends and family could only visit through a window or across a room. The National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC) recognized the impact the pandemic was having on transportation programs serving the elderly and disabled. In response, the NADTC created an online resource center to provide information, updates, recommendations and links to volunteer transportation resources. This pandemic will almost certainly have long-term impacts on these communities.

In my opinion, the full impact of COVID-19 on the future of mobility will likely depend the following three factors: how comfortable people will be resuming old mobility practices (e.g., high-occupancy public transit), how healthier options such as walking and biking will be utilized post-pandemic, and how changes to work-from-home policies will impact employee mobility needs across the nation. It will probably be at least another three months before we have enough real-world data to begin to understand these factors and weigh their impacts on mobility.

What about you? Will you be changing any of your mobility habits as you adapt to your new normal? Does your organization need help addressing any mobility or energy-related topics in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Share your thoughts or needs with me at tims@nextenergy.org or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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