From commuting to computing

02 March 2021
Transport experts from SNC-Lavalin analyse how digital connectivity will impact physical mobility in the post-pandemic world

“You’re on mute.”

“Can everyone see my screen?”

One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the experience of daily conference calls has brought a whole new set of buzzwords into our lives. People have been repeatedly required or encouraged to work from home, and multiple interactions have gone online, creating a raft of new phrases, habits and behaviours.

Covid-19 – An accelerator to the digital revolution

The digital revolution, as some have called it, enabled by online platforms and collaborative tools, is a remarkable feature of the pandemic. It has allowed organisations to function, people to interact and meaningful tasks to be carried out at a time when face-to-face contact has been curtailed by lockdowns and social distancing. Almost all organisations have asked their employees to work from home at some point, accompanied by other digital activities such as online shopping, home schooling and virtual socials.  

In the midst of crisis, necessity has been the mother of invention and technology has provided a lifeline. Use of videoconferencing services has exploded and daytime internet demand has doubled in some places. Zoom, for example, has grown from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 350 million a year later, and was the most downloaded iPhone and iPad app of 2020. Digital services have advanced years in the space of months, and what was a peripheral activity for a few has become a universal experience for almost all.

In fact, digital connectivity was identified by Atkins Acuity, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group, as one of the eight building blocks for the future of transport. In a white paper titled “Covid-19 and Transport: Reimagining transport and mobility for a sustainable economic recovery”, the company’s experts highlight that many of these digital connectivity practices may well become permanent behavioural changes.

All these new platforms have one important outcome – the elimination or sharp reduction of the need to travel from one’s home base. The growth in digital connectivity has therefore been paralleled by a slump in physical mobility and trip-making, itself an outcome of the public health emergency. It is likely to be some time before travel returns to pre-pandemic levels.

There is evidence that the pandemic has had some positive consequences such as reduced congestion and carbon emissions. Working from home, many people have also enjoyed improved wellbeing from being able to interact, often by walking or cycling, within their local neighbourhoods.

While not all jobs can be carried out online, and not every employee or student has an adequate laptop, high-speed internet or workspace at home, there is no doubt that many have adapted well to new ways of conducting work and other dimensions of their lives online.

Here to stay – beyond the pandemic

The explosion in digital, over physical, interaction has been dramatic. As mass vaccination starts to turn the tide of the pandemic, things will settle down. Over time, we will see how much of our new virtual personas outlast Covid-19 and how society will transition to a more stable state.  

It seems likely that some acquired behaviours will remain. Digital services will be seen as convenient and flexible, providing greater choice and potentially offering better work-life balance. For many, the opportunity to ditch the traffic congestion and overcrowded trains encountered on the daily commute will be irresistible. Many companies are already eyeing the financial savings from downsizing expensive city centre offices and moving to smaller, agile hot-desking layouts.

According to a survey published by UK-headquartered consultancy PwC on the future of remote work, 80 per cent of employers anticipate adopting remote working in some form and many plan to allow it for at least two days a week.

The hybrid office therefore looks set to become a reality, transitioning from a nine-to-five workplace to a more flexible proposition around face-to-face collaboration and engagement. While commuting will remain, it may flatten and become more variable by day or hour, reducing peak demand and capacity.   

This has huge implications for the economics of urban, and possibly inter-urban, travel.

In cities where the car is king, there could be less traffic and better streets. Elsewhere, public transport, already hammered during the pandemic, could see a long-term reduction in ridership and revenue. If this combines with a decline of secondary businesses serving office workers, then long-term city centre vitality could be at risk.

Business travel may also look very different. Covid-19 has shown that many corporate interactions can be done online. Operators reliant on the higher margins of business travellers may face a drawn-out recovery and will need to reinvent their market propositions. Bold, agile and innovative players, with cash to invest, may thrive. Players who are timid and unresponsive, or with inflexible legacy assets, may struggle.   

Free Wi-Fi – the future of transport?

There are big long-term questions over how the digital revolution will play out. A key test will be whether physical mobility will be seen as necessary – or desirable – to undertake activities. Travel could become more discretionary – to enjoy fresh air, spend quality time with friends, and have other personal experiences that cannot be had online. Our travel – and non-travel – choices will transform.

Over time, we will see how much of our new virtual personas outlast Covid-19 and how society will transition to a more stable state  

We therefore need to consider the need to travel against diverse future scenarios and whether physical offices, shops, universities, tourist attractions and whole city centres will reinvent themselves around human interaction, vibrant cultural and visitor experiences, and public realm, replacing basic commodity exchange, routine conversations and simple transactions offering little depth or added value.

At the same time, there will be opportunities to remodel neighbourhoods to encourage active travel for short distances, counter car (and fossil) fuelled lives, and promote compact and sustainable concepts such as the 20-minute city.  

Such considerations will have massive implications for transport, and the demand from which it is derived. Digital connectivity will need to be included in our future toolkit of planning approaches, model forecasts and design concepts. Digital networks will need to be assessed for policy alignment equally alongside physical roads, railways and public transport.

In deriving appropriate solutions, there are some fundamental questions. What will the mode share of future travel be, if “home” is a new non-travel mode? How many non-essential journeys will be eliminated by digital platforms and what secondary trips (notably by freight and home deliveries as well as people) will replace them? What are the limits of what digital can achieve? Humans are inherently social animals.

And while many will thrive in the virtual world, others may risk social isolation, poor health from physical inactivity, reduced creativity and unhappiness. We will need to adjust how, and where, to live our lives, our attitudes and mindsets. These are important questions. Beyond Covid-19, we will be grappling with them in the years to come. However, making progress will be vital to ensure the digital revolution is a success and fully enriches society rather than reducing it to the two-dimensional bandwidth of a conference call.

In October 2021, Dubai will host the world at Expo 2020, across 173 days charged with collaborative and innovative experiences. Expo 2020 has three central themes: Opportunity, Sustainability and Mobility. Many of the themes discussed above are expected to form a central part of Expo 2020’s conversations on mobility. Dubai is well placed to spearhead the discussions as a forward-looking city of the future – and we are keen to see how these trends shape up in the count down to Expo.

About the authors

Jonathan Spear (far left) is a transport policy and strategy adviser at Atkins Acuity, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group, in the Middle East; Roger Cruickshank (left) is senior director of Atkins Acuity, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group, in the Middle East

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