COVID-19 and mobility: Shaping travel options for long-term advantage

Article

The pandemic and mobility: Shaping travel options for long-term advantage

Opportunities to change consumer behavior for travelling in post-COVID-19 times

With the arrival of COVID-19 consumer behavior for travelling changed. Road congestion largely disappeared and public transport ridership plummeted overnight, as businesses laid off employees or pivoted to remote work. The significant changes to how we live and work could have lasting implicationsfor travel options. Increased remote working and learning will reduce the demand for mobility and may make the demand more flexible over time. Additionally, an expected shift away from public transport threatens the sustainability, safety, inclusiveness and quality of our mobility system.

Summary

As a new chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic is being written, Deloitte explores how mobility has changed in the Netherlands and how it is likely to continue evolving, offering insights for business, governmentand civic leaders. Here are our key findings:

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  • Because more people have avoided peak travel times, road congestion levels have dropped even as interest in car use has grown.
  • A significant share of would-be commuters will continue working or studying from home post–COVID-19.
  • The majority of public-transport users expect to begin travelling more by car.
  • A shift from public transport to private car ownership use can lead to financial, health, safety and environmental effects.
  • This is a critical time to influence public behaviour as future mobility options are considered.

We can’t foresee the exact nature of our ‘new normal’, nor predict the shape of the recovery to come. COVID-19 will likely accelerate trends that had emerged pre-crisis, but also present threats and opportunities. Moreover, as discussed in Deloitte’s recent article, 'After the shock: Learning to thrive in a (post-)COVID-19 world', there will be more outbreaks as we await a vaccine and leaders should prepare now for further disruptions.

Deloitte has analysed the impact of COVID-19 on mobility so far, gauged changing preferences and illustrated four scenarios to assess implications for the medium-term future (next three to five years).

COVID-19 and our modes of travel

When the lockdown in the Netherlands started on 16 March 2020, people initially started travelling shorter distances and less often. Public transport ridership reached a low in April (as measured by the total number of public transport check-ins); even after a slow increase the numbers were still down, by 66 per cent in June 2020 as compared to June 2019.

The total distance travelled on highways also reached a low in April but
returned to normal levels much quicker: the week 24 level (the week of the 8th
of June) even topped the pre-lockdown level of Week 11 (the week of the 9th
of March). Interestingly, highway congestion did not increase proportionally; congestion levels were still down by 77 percent when comparing June to pre-lockdown February 2020.

Figure 1: Comparison of travel patterns by public transport and on the road (Source: Google maps, Translink, NIS Rijkswaterstaat)

This is because we managed to travel less during ‘peak days’ (see Figure 2) and during ‘peak times’ (see figure 3)­[1]. On some working days in June road congestion levels were down by as much as 93% compared to March (pre-lockdown), whilst on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays they are equal or even higher.

[1] Since the 16th of March the maximum speed allowance on highways has been reduced to 100 km/h between 6 am and 7 pm. This could have an effect on road congestion and traffic intensity (the number of passing vehicles). 

Figure 2: Comparison of travel patterns, by day (Source: Translink, NIS Rijkswaterstaat)

Figure 3: Comparison of travel patterns, by time (Source: Translink, NDW)

Compared to March 2020, the number of public-transport riders in July was down by 80% in the morning peak. Highway traffic intensity[i], measured by the number of passing vehicles on a sample[ii] of locations on the highway, was down by 17% per cent in the morning peak.

[i] Nationale Databank Wegverkeergegevens provides data on historical traffic intensities in more than 37,000 measurement locations in the Netherlands.

[ii]Based on a sample of ten Dutch highway locations, the average road traffic intensity level has been calculated to indicate how busy the highways were during different times of day.

Potential for change

The analysis described above shows that many people can avoid travelling
during peak times when they really need to. This aligns with a high-level estimate of Carlo van de Weijer, General Manager of the Eindhoven AI Systems
Institute at Eindhoven University of Technology[1], which indicated that out of the workforce of 8,5 million people in the Netherlands, 4,5 million could avoid travelling during the during rush hour, and 1.5 million are already doing so.

Additionally, some of the 4 million people who can’t avoid rush hours, including  students, could start to do so if their timetables changed.[i]Research before COVID-19 by Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteit showed that almost all train passengers who travelled during the busiest 15 minutes of the morning rush hour were going to work (70 per cent) or school (30 per cent).[ii] So if working hours and timetables become more flexible post-COVID-19 this morning
peak can be reduced.

The same holds for highway congestion. Rijkswaterstaat keeps track of the causes of highway congestion, and has provided clearly demonstrable causes for about 30 per cent of total road congestion during the past five years (e.g. weather conditions or car accidents). The remaining 70 per cent is classified as peak-hour traffic, which is simply a result of peak demand exceeding capacity during rush hours.

All of these statistics support what has been common knowledge to traffic engineers for a long time, which is that traffic congestion:

  • is mainly a result of excess traffic demand during specific days and specific times of day
  • can be greatly reduced with a relatively minor reduction in traffic, which is due to the exponential correlation between traffic and congestion.

In a sense, COVID-19 provides a unique opportunity to harness the momentum of changing travel behaviour, developing long-lasting strategies to avoid rush hours in the post-pandemic world. But such efforts also rely on consumer preferences that extend beyond time and destination.

[1] Carlo van de Weijer from the Technical University Eindhoven, “Podcast over het herontwerp van Amsterdam”, https://amsterdamsmartcity.com/posts/podcast-over-het-herontwerp-van-amsterdam, Retrieved July 9, 2020.

[i] Carlo van de Weijer, “Podcast over het herontwerp van Amsterdam”, https://amsterdamsmartcity.com/posts/podcast-over-het-herontwerp-van-amsterdam, accessed 9 July 2020.

ii] Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteit (KiM), “Gedragsveranderingen mogelijk blijvend effect op gebruik openbaar vervoer”, https://www.kimnet.nl/actueel/nieuws/2020/07/09/door-gedragsveranderingen-mogelijk-blijvend-effect-op-openbaar-vervoergebruik, accessed 9 July 2020.

Changing preferences

To gauge whether people actually want to plan around rush hours, and how their preferences are changing, Deloitte examined stated preference indicators (i.e. surveys) along with revealed preference indicators (i.e. sales figures). Our analysis covers remote working, transport means and vehicle buying preferences.

The reality of remote working

Research by Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteit shows that Dutch employees
are generally feeling more positive about remote working, although some also
indicate that they miss the social aspects of working in an office.[i]

[i] Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteit (KiM), “Gedragsveranderingen mogelijk blijvend effect op gebruik openbaar vervoer”, https://www.kimnet.nl/actueel/nieuws/2020/07/21/meer-nederlanders-verwachten-gedrag-blijvend-aan-te-passen-door-corona, accessed 21 July 2020.

Figure 4: Dutch employees' stated work situations, March–April and June–July 2020 (Source: Kennisinstuut voor Mobiliteit)

In surveys carried out by both Deloitte Netherlands and Deloitte United
Kingdom[i], the majority of employees stated that they wish to work no more than two days in the office after COVID-19.

[i] Deloitte, “Responding to COVID-19: Reopening the workplace and lessons learned”, accessed 9 July 2020.

Figure 5: Deloitte employees' stated work situations, June (Source: Deloitte)

Public transport rides down, interest in cars up

The Deloitte Consumer Tracker suggests that in the next three months, 60 per cent of Dutch consumers plan to limit their use of public transport and 30 per cent plan to limit their ride-hailing activity. Additionally, 57 per cent of Dutch public-transport users are considering buying a car, and 36 per cent of Dutch car-owners plan to keep their current vehicle longer than they originally expected.

Figure 6: Deloitte Consumer Tracker statistics on Dutch travel behaviour (Source: Deloitte)

Whether consumers will buy a car or keep their current vehicle longer is not just a reflection of their travel preferences, but also of their confidence about their future income and purchasing power (see Figure 7). 

Figure 7: Deloitte Consumer Tracker results showing comparison of vehicle ownership–job retention correlation by country (Source: Deloitte)

Research commissioned by BOVAG shows somewhat similar results (source: BOVAG). It concludes that even though the majority of public-transport users expect to begin travelling more by car, just 8 per cent of them will actually buy a car in the short term. Analysis of actual car sales data (source: BOVAG) shows that sales of new cars, especially, have taken a hit since the start of the lockdown: In April, May and June 2020 that figure was significantly lower than in the same timeframe of 2019. Fewer used cars (occasions) were sold in April and May 2020 than in 2019, but the June 2020 figure was higher than that of a year ago. As a result, the total number of cars sold in June 2020 was approximately the same as one year prior.

Figure 8: BOVAG statistics on car sales, 2019–2020 (Sources: Deloitte)

Other alternatives

Various sources have confirmed an increase in sales of bicycles, electric scooters and motorcycles (traditional and electric) since the start of the lockdown. Also, the number of car-sharing users, as well as the occupancy rate of shared cars, increased recently. This suggests that these transport modes might also gain a share of former public-transport riders.

Figure 9: Statistics reflecting shift away from public transport (Sources: Accel, Van Moof, BOVAG, Snappcar, Greenwheels)

Looking past the crisis

Although the indicators Deloitte examined help give an idea of how consumer preferences are developing, a correct interpretation remains tricky. On one hand, consumers might increasingly prefer cars over public transport for health reasons. But on the other hand, they might be reluctant to purchase cars as they fear the consequences of an economic crisis. This raises the interlinking questions shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10: Questions arising from intersecting concerns about COVID-19 and the economy

Scenarios for strategising

In the article “The futures of mobility after COVID-19”, Deloitte presented four post–COVID-19 scenarios that explore the potential results of developments under way. They reflect the uncertain trajectory of the future of mobility, which depends on: How the pandemic evolves, economic health, and the collective decisions of governments, businesses and individuals. By analysing each of the four scenarios, leaders can:

  • identify the central sources of uncertainty
  • lay out the strategic choices facing different actors
  • sketch out potential pathways to the future
  • highlight the specific indicators that players across mobility domains should be watching.

Persistent trends and ‘no-regret’ moves

Irrespective of which scenario plays out, we predict that four trends will persist:

  • trip substitution via digitisation
  • increased focus on safety
  • increased reliance on e-commerce
  • reconfigured mobility landscape

 Despite the changeability of transport demand in the coming years, initial conclusions can already be drawn and support ‘no-regret’ moves to prepare for any scenario. Each of the below actions reflect strategic decisions that should be made with a focus on health, safety, accessibility and sustainability. New ideas, new partnerships and new kinds of investment can facilitate all of these goals, and help mobility stakeholders recover and thrive in the years to come.  

Leverage the opportunity to flatten (rush hour) transport demand curves

Post-lockdown, at least some would-be commuters will continue working or studying from home, or avoid travelling during peak hours.[i] To maximise this opportunity to limit road congestion, governments, educational institutions and employers need to work together. Convincing people and organisations to change travel behaviour in a sustainable way requires coordination and cooperation, as well as analysis of the most effective incentives and (dynamic pricing) mechanisms.

Mitigate the risk of a modal shift towards private car ownership

As explained before, quite some travelers are likely to shift away from public transport in the years to come. Public transport is essential for economic and social inclusion, because people who ride to work are less likely to have the option to drive. If private vehicle ownership increases, this poses a significant threat to our mobility system’s inclusiveness, as well as sustainability, safety and quality. Additionally, public-transport providers might require financial support or drastic decisions. The Dutch National Railways has already announced lay-offs.

To stimulate ridership during the recovery, customer trust in a safe mobility experience is key[ii]. Public-transport providers should work with other providers and governments towards better, more resilient and more seamless alternatives to private vehicles. Central to this will be developing a network of
mobility hubs that are integrated with an array of Mobility-as-a-Service propositions. Additionally, integrating mobility services into living and corporate mobility propositions (i.e. car-sharing subscriptions for a mixed community of residents) is key.

 Promote healthy alternatives

Governments should strengthen their efforts to promote the safety and attractiveness of walking, biking, and other active, healthy, shared and more-sustainable means of mobility. As people reconsider their mobility options, this is the moment to nudge them toward more desirable behaviour from a societal and environmental perspective. 

"The futures of mobility after COVID-19"
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