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How is transit responding to reopening?

November 02, 2021

By Ken Anderson, Alexander Thome and Kate Jack

Roundtable discussion: Experts reveal how the pandemic accelerated change in how we get around

This article first appeared as “Getting back: Roundtable” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 13.

After a year of shutdowns and severe interruption, transportation networks around the world are gradually ramping up service as the public resumes commuting and traveling. But don’t expect a return to business as usual.

The pandemic changed the way communities and designers are thinking about everything from business models to transportation modes, even where we want to go (not always the office). To make sense of where transit, airport, and smart mobility are headed, we gathered three experts for a roundtable. Ken Anderson, transit sector leader; Alex Thome, Buildings airport leader; and Kate Jack, smart mobility leader, talk with John Dugan, editor of the Stantec Design Quarterly, about the changes to transit as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are the highlights.

What did the pandemic reveal about your side of the transportation industry?

Alex: The pandemic exposed a serious challenge to airport and airline business models—they were focused almost solely on flying. In response, airports have reset their thinking from “How do we best fly passengers in and out of our airports and capture revenue from those passengers?” to “How do we diversify our business by leveraging our real estate assets to generate revenue and be profitable even when flying isn’t possible?”

Transportation technology is advancing rapidly, COVID has drawn attention to that fact. Everyone gets packages delivered to their doors instead of going to the store. Online and delivery services boomed because we were rethinking health, safety, and our time during the pandemic. That’s further transformed airports into places that move goods around the world. Airports must see themselves as part of a broader transportation network.

Kate: From a global perspective, the pandemic accelerated awareness
of everything that we believe in about smart mobility from the active travel side right up to the adoption of autonomous solutions. In the first wave of the pandemic, we saw autonomous vehicles (AVs) deployed to capture and transport COVID tests safely within hospitals and free up staff to do frontline.

Initially there was a downturn in micromobility as nobody could get around, then suddenly everyone thought “let’s use our individual bikes and micro scooters to get around safely” because our roads were freed up. We saw shared city bikes flatline and then absolutely rocket up, which is quite fascinating.

How has the decline in ridership affected investment in the market?

Ken: With transit, the main metric is always ridership. During the pandemic, ridership plummeted. Most agencies lost 80- 90% of their riders. With the vaccine things are opening rapidly. We’re seeing ridership come back 40-45% of where it used to be, and the agencies’ projections for fall are optimistic.

We didn’t see much of a slowdown in investment. Some agencies had money that was independent of ridership, so they had capital to do work. And any agency that has a state of good repair (SGR) project, sees that this is the time to do it because of the softening of ridership. Plus, every stimulus package and COVID relief package has had a transit component to it. The question for transit agencies long term is, how long will it take for ridership to fully return (if it does) and how do they sustainability replace capital funding beyond the stimulus?

Alex: The challenge that airports have is “how do you plan an airport effectively that’s going to bring passengers back in the short term and make them feel comfortable?” So, there are spacing requirements and airports are pushing toward more touchless technologies.

Imagine the crowded queuing areas for TSA checkpoints when you spread people out 6 feet apart. Those lines go out the front door. How do they plan for the long term, knowing we’ll likely be back to closer spacing in 2 years? Building in flexibility is an interesting challenge.

We’re working on designing small office hubs next to the smart mobility hubs so that you can meet people and spend time with people in a work environment.

How much do you invest in infrastructure for the short term, with the understanding that COVID won’t be around for a long time but that something else might come up?

Airlines need to figure out how they fit in. After 9/11, they commoditized and during COVID, they parked their fleets of aircraft. So, now they are reevaluating the route maps, the hubs that they were serving, the destinations, even the type of aircraft that they fly. They look at fuel consumption per passenger, range, comfort, cost, and re-evaluate their aircraft.

Kate: Public transport is the backbone of everything that we do, and we’ve seen at least a 50% cut in the ridership. So, trying to fill those gaps now is more challenging financially.

However, it also brought renewed awareness for people in terms of the environmental impacts of transport particularly SUVs and single-occupancy vehicles. It showed us that the 15-minute city can be a reality. From that perspective, it’s brilliant news for micromobility awareness in the long term especially when combined with the passion local communities have for developing multimodal-friendly and pedestrianized downtowns.

What do your clients need help with?

Kate: An enormous number of proposals we’re getting are about the possibilities of living outside of the city and achieving work-life balance. Our local communities want to be better connected to each other and they’re looking at mobility from a sustainable perspective. Instead of opting for more car parks and bigger roads, they’re interested in learning which mobility solutions are available. So, our clients need a guide to the deployment of these types of solutions and what smart infrastructure is required to do that.

We’ve looked at the pain points that micromobility, particularly the deployment of eScooters and freestanding bikes, had in cities in North America. We look at deployment and infrastructure and how best it will benefit a community, an overarching plan for mobility design development rather than just the private sector placing these vehicles where they see opportunities. We make sure these programs are implemented safely and responsibly for our clients and that they meet the need where it is greatest—in transport deserts, for example.

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Brooklyn Village in Charlotte, North Carolina.

One thing that the pandemic revealed is that the transit systems are largely set up for commuting, what about other kinds of trips and how has this influenced projects?

Kate: Mobility hubs have become mainstream for us as a client requirement. The smart mobility hub offers you options for that last mile of your trip at a point of transit or a station. The adoption of electric bikes, electric scooters, and the infrastructure required is becoming a higher priority.

Alongside that, we’re thinking about what else can be combined at the mobility hub, what else is there when you arrive at that place. For instance, we’re working on designing small office hubs next to the smart mobility hubs so that you can meet people and spend time with people in a work environment, but you don’t necessarily need to go to the office to work.

People moved to second-tier cities during the pandemic. Do these cities need to spend more money on transit?

Ken: They do. It's all interconnected. People are moving to second-tier cities for reasons including cost and work-from-home policies. So, both the first- and second-tier cities need to look at their service and social distancing. As we get more ridership, there’s still a social distancing component within the buses or trains and that’s likely to stay a little while longer.

Kate: Yes, smaller cities have a better opportunity to build transit because they can take the lessons from the big cities. Jersey City and some communities outside Chicago are growing, for example, but the cost of putting in a new train station or a new tram can be prohibitive. Because of the smarter technology that we have available, we can lay out a comprehensive plan as to how to deploy solutions gradually and ensure public reception will be there. Instead of looking at disruption, we’re looking at areas where we can add value, things like AV rapid transit, an upgrade that doesn’t require enormous additional infrastructure.

What technologies are influencing transportation in your world?

Alex: Technology is forcing airports to think about their business models and a shift toward goods and passengers. Airports are leveraging their land to become part of broader manufacturing and distribution streams, so we’re going to see things like end-to-end manufacturing setup and processes at the airport. The idea is that a product is developed and manufactured at the airport, and it’ll get put in a plane and go right to its destination from the airport.

What kind of technology are we seeing for transportation?

Kate: We’re seeing agency after agency look at zero emissions buses, battery electric buses, and technologies such as hydrogen. This is driven by zero emissions mandates from some states and continually improving battery technology. In some cases, current zero emissions buses (ZEBs) can’t meet all needs, so agencies are still looking at hydrogen and CNG (compressed natural gas). They are using stimulus money for fleet upgrades and fleet retrofits. And those that already have electric buses are investing in facilities upgrades and improved charging technology.

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A multimodal transport hub with mixed-use building concept.

Beyond ZEBs, what are some other ideas?

Alex: The industry is not only developing vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, but they’re also working on rocket-like long distance aircraft to fly very fast at high altitudes. Biotech companies are developing net zero carbon jet fuel as a short-term sustainable solution for existing jets. In Texas, they are investigating hyperloop to connect cities as quickly as air travel and the station will be in the middle of town.

Kate: Maglev is an approach to higher speed rail that has been used in other countries and it’s being looked at in the US, but it will need investment at the federal level. There are also some nontraditional ideas that we’re seeing cities explore, like gondolas from one side of a river to the other, that are fascinating as an economical and effective way to move people.

Ken: The awareness of and the capability of AVs is greater than it was. However, the money to deploy it is still in question, and there’s a lot of consolidation in the AV industry. So, we’re doing mobility planning with AV in the background.

We’re seeing more flexibility in the types of ticketing transport providers are producing. From a smart mobility perspective, we want to integrate all the solutions into one with one platform where you pay one price for one journey. There must be some restructuring in revenue collection. We have the data and capability to be able to create new products that will be able to deliver them the revenue that they need from this multimodal system, designing the infrastructure and the digital infrastructure required as well. That’s revenue for that municipality, but it’s also just a good customer experience.

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  • Ken Anderson

    Known for developing architectural solutions that transform lives for the better, Ken is responsible for guiding our transit practice in the United States.

    Contact Ken
  • Alexander Thome

    Focusing on architecture and transit-related projects, Alex has worked on multiple large-scale projects that improve travel for millions of people.

    Contact Alexander
  • Kate Jack

    With a background in telecommunications, energy, and automated technology, Kate leads our global Smart(ER) Mobility team and advocates for the sustainability benefits mobility solutions can have on our environment and communities.

    Contact Kate
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