As people return to work, here’s how we can make commuting more inclusive and sustainable


(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Seán Doyle, Project Lead, Industry Solutions, Centre for Cybersecurity, World Economic Forum

  • As people return to work after COVID-19 lockdowns, we face a common challenge of improving the commuting experience for everyone.
  • Employers and public partners need to cooperate to enable safe, convenient and dignified journeys.
  • Lasting policies will require flexible commuter benefits that allow for daily changes in plans and schedules, and encourage sustainable choices.

As people around the world return to work after COVID-19 lockdowns, we face a common challenge of improving the commuting experience for everyone. For some, working from home was an opportunity to realise just how much of their valuable time and energy was previously spent on daily travel. For others, the need for safe, reliable transport became even more obvious as they commuted during the crisis to provide essential services such as healthcare, cleaning, waste collection and repair work.

Commuting has a major impact on our well-being and job satisfaction. Nearly a quarter of workers have left a job because of the commute. All over the world, rush hours are linked to peaks in air pollution that threaten our health and contribute to global warming.

Stakeholders from Luum, Zeelo, Wundermobility, Vanderbilt University and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) recently came together to discuss how to seize this moment and create the inclusive and sustainable commutes of the future. The meeting was facilitated by #WeAllMove, a mobility service match-making platform launched in April by Wunder Mobility, leveraging multi-stakeholder collaboration in partnership with the World Economic Forum’s COVID Action Platform. Here are their insights:


What is the World Economic Forum doing about mobility?

Mobility systems must be resilient, safe, inclusive, responsive, and sustainable. This is why #WeAllMove, a mobility service match-making platform, launched April 2020 by Wunder Mobility in partnership with the World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform. The platform highlights the importance of leveraging multi-stakeholder collaboration across governments, providers, commuters and more

#WeAllMove consolidates information about a variety of mobility options available in any city, from mode share, to ride share and transit. The independent platform, co-hosted by mobility providers operating globally, will integrate private, public and joint mobility services into a single search and output engine, ensuring a better “new mobility normal” can be forged, regardless of the crisis ahead.

Since its launch April 2020, it has grown to include 130 mobility service providers offering tailored services in over 300 cities and 40 countries. By bringing public and private stakeholders together, the platform can ensure business continuity for an array of mobility providers, and help secure jobs and services that depend on mobility.

Creating an Inclusive, Dignified Commute

Companies and policy makers need to consider the underlying social purpose of public transport, how it affects the lives of all users on a daily basis, and how it can become an engine of greater equality and inclusion.

“We must be guided by goals and values,” said Erin Hafkenschiel from Vanderbilt University. Instead of merely reacting to events, she recommended stepping back and identifying fundamental priorities. Something as seemingly minor as a deteriorating bus stop can severely impact the well-being of people who depend on buses as their sole means of transport. “We need to bring dignity back to all forms of transportation,” she added. This also means acknowledging that not everyone owns a car, knows how to drive or wants to drive, and that a car-centred policy approach excludes those people.

While local, state, and federal transportation authorities have the largest role to play in providing safe and dignified commutes, employers also need to step up.

“The employer has the opportunity to create policy. Depending on your pay level, you can more heavily subsidize transit or have larger [commute] reimbursements,” said Sohier Hall, CEO of Luum, a commuter benefits management platform. One concrete action would be to provide such benefits for all employees at all income levels.

In the long term, a combination of employer-led policies, public sector policies and infrastructure investments could lead to better and more enjoyable commutes, which would in turn encourage more people to use public transport.

Encouraging sustainability

European corporations tend to bundle car expenses into compensation packages, which encourages employees to drive more. Offering a company car increases average household vehicle volume by a stunning 25%. Switching to a more multi-modal system of travel benefits could lead to lasting change. In practice, this could mean offering a company bike or a company transit pass instead of a company car. At the same time, employers must ensure that they don’t inadvertently discriminate against workers who need to drive for health reasons or because their area lacks access to public transport. 13% of employers subsidized transit for employees in 2018, up from 10% in 2014.

In the context of the pandemic, many cities have provided extra cycling routes and other incentives for sustainable travel. However, the risk of infection may encourage people to use cars as a safer alternative to buses and subways.

“We should be looking at sustainability from a safety standpoint and a financial standpoint,” said Sam Ryan, founder and CEO of Zeelo, a bus-sharing company. He suggested designing a hybrid model, with the public and private sectors joining forces to fund sustainable public transport services and provide attractive alternatives to car ownership.

COVID-19 Auto & Mobility Consumer Insights. Results from consumer survey June 16-18, 2020
Image: McKinsey & Company

Flexible office time

Even before the crisis, employees were increasingly asking for more personalized working practices such as working from home and flexible hours. During the pandemic, more employers recognized that offering tailored working practices such as flexible shifts increased their staff’s productivity and efficiency. Mobility providers recognized that they had to adjust their schedules to fit a more flexible working pattern.

The pandemic has also encouraged commuters to explore different transport options, such as the ones provided on the #WeAllMove platform launched in April. These include bike shares and pop-up bus routes. “Today we have five times as many partners as when we started #WeAllMove,” said Ioana Freise, GM of Wunder City. The platform offers mobility services in over 350 cities in almost 50 countries, and has had over 12,000 visitors. “We are reaching a great crowd of people who are looking to stay mobile in this world that is changing around us,” Freise said. That surge in interest may be signaling a transition to a different way of commuting, with people more willing to share cars, bikes and other means of transport, choosing the best option for any given situation.

Pay as you park

In many cities, parking fees were enforced less strictly during the pandemic in order to support essential workers and deliveries. On the other hand, on-street parking was temporarily banned in some places to facilitate drop-offs and pick-ups, and streets were closed to cars and converted into cycle lanes or extra space for cafes. How can we maintain such a flexible, human-centred approach when everyone goes back to the workplace?

Monthly parking permits encourage permit holders to drive more because of the sunk cost effect, meaning that people feel they have to justify the prior spending by using the permit as much as possible. An MIT study demonstrated that by eliminating annual parking permits in favour of daily, pay-as-you-park pricing, parking utilisation was reduced by 8%. “This is an economics problem,” said Sohier Hall, CEO of Luum. “We must charge for parking so it isn’t subsidized, but we need to get employees out of monthly parking permits.”

Daily parking with reservations allows for flexibility and easy charging. That way employees only pay for the days they park and are not subject to the sunk cost effect of a monthly parking permit.

“My hope is that the crisis that we’re in now is more of a catalyst for change rather than a catalyst for returning to everybody driving alone,” explained Erin Hafkenschiel at Vanderbilt University. “For example, we’re trying to move away from having an income-banded parking charge to more of a supply and demand system.”

Post-Covid Commuting

Cities and employers collaborated successfully during the crisis, acting with impressive agility, creativity and decisiveness to allow people to travel safely. Now the challenge is to extend this collaboration to free up roads and reduce costs and carbon emissions in the long term.

In a recent mobility policy pick and mix framework, the Global New Mobility Coalition proposed that cities encourage employers to integrate shared zero-emission (and ideally, automated) rides for safer, cleaner commutes. One suggestion is for cities to partner with employers for incentivising a sustainable return to work. A corporate mobility challenge led by the Global Future Council on Mobility collected success stories to inspire action. It’s not about never driving, it’s about driving less – and that starts with choice and convenient, reliable, affordable alternatives. Will your company and city join the trend?

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