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Mobility In The Age Of COVID-19

The lockdown protocols imposed by governments across the world are likely to be sufficiently lengthy to allow new habits to form, and for people to get used to the idea of working remotely, to not having to meet in person, or travel so much for business.

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

The spread of COVID-19 around the world has had a profound impact on most industries, but few have been as affected as transport.  In a global world, our lives and our economy depend on the ability to move people, goods, data, and ideas, and the first two of those have been significantly hampered as borders have shut down and mobility curtailed.

Nowhere typifies the scale of the challenge better than technology bellwether Apple, whose flight bill to China alone each year is said to top $35 million.  Global pollution maps have highlighted the reduction in emissions as a result of this slow down in travel, while towns and cities across the world appear eerily silent at times when people would ordinarily be rushing to and from work.

During the lockdown periods imposed by governments, international travel has resulted in meetings and conferences being hosted online, with workers scrabbling to turn their kitchens and living rooms into home offices to carry on as much as possible from home.  These changes are undoubtedly profound, but are they likely to endure once travel restrictions are lifted?

Enduring change

It’s estimated that many cities around Europe have seen falls in both public and private transport of up to 80%.  Where restrictions on cycling have been limited, this has seen many taking to two wheels in a bid to keep off of public transport, but restrictions in many cities have limited the spread of this trend.

This is counterbalanced by the preservation of traffic among delivery and refuse collection vehicles, with delivery traffic growing in many cities as people turn to online ordering to avoid the crowds flocking to physical stores.

Things such as remote working have struggled to take hold across the economy for a number of reasons over the years, and it’s taken something as monumental as the coronavirus pandemic to force behavior change on so many people.  The lockdown protocols imposed by governments across the world are likely to be sufficiently lengthy to allow new habits to form, and for people to get used to the idea of working remotely, to not having to meet in person, or travel so much for business.

It’s also providing sufficient time for people to iron out any of the kinks in their home working setup, whether that’s at the employee end in terms of the equipment and environment they need to work in, or at the employer end in terms of how teams can be effectively managed when working remotely.  This latter point is especially important, as for many years, remote working has been muted in large part due to the (justifiable) fears that being out of the office would render one out of sight of one’s boss, and therefore unlikely to gain the best projects or the latest promotions.  By having to figure out ways to manage remote teams, it will force managers to reassess how they function, and especially how they assess their employees and assign them to tasks.

On the flip side, however, is the willingness of workers to do so remotely on a permanent basis.  As researchers from the London School of Economics aptly illustrate, much of the pleasure of remote working is having the option to do so, and many express concerns about the degradation in social skills should remote working be forced at all times.

“Back in ordinary work times, I relished a work from home day as it gave me the opportunity to have a more freeform day and to also have quiet time to focus on some tasks I needed thinking time for,” one researcher explains. “After a couple of days working from home, I realised how much I was missing going into central London, campus. I miss being active and moving about between buildings that came with everyday work life on campus.”

Technical support

What is also evident during this home working revolution is that the technical infrastructure required to support the transition has creaked somewhat.  In the early days of the pandemic, the UK’s mobile networks all experienced outages as they strained under the increased load being placed on them.  This has been compounded by the uneven spread of 4G connectivity around the UK and 5G connectivity limited to around 40 towns and cities across the country.  Indeed, it’s estimated that just 10% of UK homes have a high-speed fiber connection.

What’s more, the distribution of jobs that one can even perform remotely is far from evenly spread.  Research done by the Centre for Cities in the UK shows the regional inequality in terms of ability to work from home, with cities such as Oxford and London far more likely to cater for such work than towns such as Doncaster and Middlesborough.

So while the opposition Labour party pledged to bolster the country’s creaking broadband network in the 2019 general election, it’s not entirely clear that this would do much to encourage shopkeepers and factory workers to work from home.

The art of the possible

What the corona crisis has done is showcase the art of the possible.  Working from home has become possible.  Walking to the shops has become possible.  Holding meetings online and working out at home have become possible.  With the UK government urging a radical vision for the future of UK transport to tackle climate change, the jolt to our lifestyles provided by the coronavirus pandemic may be the ‘burning platform’ required to result in the kind of changes many climate activists have called for for many years.

Humans are nonetheless innately social beings, so it’s far from certain that we will choose to remain in the isolatory existence that has been foist upon us for prolonged periods this year.  If even some of those behavior changes stick, however, it will result in profound changes to how we travel both within our countries and internationally.

What is unquestionable is that the scale of the pandemic has enabled changes that would previously have been unthinkable due to the size of the objects in their way.  Mountains have literally been moved overnight, due in large part to the alternative being unfathomable.  Change management experts refer to such situations as a burning platform, and we’ve had that on a scale seldom seen before.  If our mobility habits are to receive a lasting change, therefore, then this could well be the jolt required.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
Strategic Media Partner