Mobility after coronavirus crisis – from public to private

The coronavirus crisis will change how the Swiss population moves around. Use of individual private transport will increase; use of public transport, taxis and ride-sharing services decline. This is likely to further intensify the debate on the optimal use of urban space and the financing of different forms of mobility.

For most people, mobility is one of the basic prerequisites for professional and social life. To achieve our life goals, we need to get around. The average Swiss person spends around 90 minutes travelling each day and this figure has been rising. Around half of this time is spent on leisure travel – mobility also means freedomi. But the measures the Swiss government has taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 have changed and restricted the way people move within the country in an almost unprecedented way. Trains and buses are almost empty despite reducing their timetables. Some pedestrian areas are like ghost towns, but many more people are jogging and cycling in local recreation areas. As soon as the lockdown measures are relaxed in the coming weeks, the extraordinary experience we have been through will have an impact on our mobility behaviour. In mid-April, Deloitte conducted a representative survey of 1,500 working-age people living in Switzerland to explore the impact of the coronavirus crisis on their current and future mobility behaviour.

Chart 1: Long-term changes in individual mobility behaviour due to the coronavirus crisis

More individual, less public

Chart 1 illustrates how individuals plan to change their use of different modes of transport in the long term. The changes mentioned go in both directions, but overall there is a clear shift away from public transport, taxis and ride-hailing schemes towards individual modes of transport. One-third of respondents believe they will walk more or make greater use of bicycles or electric scooters. About a quarter think they will take fewer trains, buses, trams and taxis. This suggests the use of personal motorised transport among existing users will increase slightly, particularly among young people. One in four of those aged under 30 say they are likely to drive more frequently and 29% will make greater use of motorcycles. The shift in this age group is considerably higher than for older generations.

There are several reasons for this change. On the one hand, there is fear of infection because on public transport you are in close proximity to a large number of people in a relatively small space. What was often perceived as unpleasant and stressful is now a real health risk for some people. On the other hand, the lockdown increased the level of home-working, so commuter traffic and long-distance journeys at peak periods will decline, which would be welcomed. 

Bikes are booming, buses and trains are gloomy

What does this mean for the transport sector and companies? The survey’s findings indicate general trends, but not its exact intensity. The crisis will not turn commuters’ behaviour completely on its head and underlying trends including the sharing economy, mobility as a service and electrification will remain and further intensify. There is a good chance that cycling, and electric bikes in particular, will continue to grow in popularity, at the expense of buses and trains. A modern e-bike can cover relatively large distances quickly and without harming the environment. Meanwhile, if in the future greater numbers of employees switch to working from home, this will have a tangible impact on the Swiss rail network (SBB), especially at very busy times. An Ecoplan study already suggested that flexible working could see train traffic decline by 24% during the morning peak and 10% during the evening peakii. The COVID-19 outbreak is likely to cut passenger traffic even more causing discussions about billion dollar expansions to be quickly dropped. In general, the costs of such changes must be monitored and managed carefully. In local transport there is likely to be a shift away from the use of trams and buses as commuters switch to walking, e-bikes and scooters for relatively short journeys. These trends are likely to have an impact on transport planning and possibly on the financing of transport companies. In recent years, there have been calls for both the promotion of low-emission modes of private transport and for the expansion of public transport. Private transport is now likely to be favoured. If the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians in cities increase, this will further strengthen the demand for expanding foot and cycle paths, along with other cycling-friendly investments. More attractive arrangements for cyclists will also, however, mean a loss of revenue for public transport operators, although it is not yet clear how big these losses could eventually be.

A slight shift towards motorised private transport can be expected with electric cars playing an increasingly important role. In absolute terms, they are still very much in the minority at only 3.6% of all new vehicles, but the Swiss eMobility association believes there is considerable scope for the market to growiii. The debate about the optimal number of parking spaces in city centres is likely to continue. Discussions on the best way to managing urban space are likely to increase. Creating more space for individual modes of transport whilst treating all stakeholders fairly will be an important challenge. In the long term, the focus should be on optimising mobility options as good and flexible as possible.

Flexible mobility concepts for employees

The coronavirus crisis has forced many companies to become more flexible on working hours and location. Wherever possible, they will need to maintain this approach as the requirement for flexibility will continue to increase. For example, certain internal and external meetings could take place virtually post pandemic to save unnecessary travel time and costs. Companies allowing for such flexibility with a tailored mobility concept will massively boost their attractiveness as an employer. Introducing “mobility budgets” for employees offers further scope to make traffic flows more flexible. Rather than offer a company car or half-price travel card, companies could instead give staff a budget to “spend” as they choose on schemes including car-sharing, ride-sharing, electric scooters and e-bikes or, alternatively, choose to save. An approach of this kind is cost-neutral and provides an incentive to invest in alternative modes of transport and services.iv

It will be interesting to see how individual mobility changes. However, freight, which accounts for the majority of daily transport, should not be forgotten. To ensure respect for the environment, both areas should continue to be price driven, so that the most innovative and efficient technologies can prevail.

i BFS (2019) Mobilität und Verkehr Taschenstatistik 2019
ii Ecoplan (2015) Verkehrsinfrastrukturen smarter nutzen dank flexibler Arbeitsformen

See all survey results to discover how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting our everyday life >

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