How Will We Get Around After COVID-19?
From Cars to Ridesharing to the Subway, This Is What ‘Normal’ Might Look Like
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t likely to be behind us any time soon, that much is certain.
What our pre-vaccine reality will actually look like is less clear. But with stay-at-home guidelines beginning to ease state-by-state, we are at least getting a glimpse of some best guesses.
For now, it’s a picture filled (or half-filled) with lower-capacity restaurants and offices, clean hands, covered faces – and a long drip of paranoia about the prospects of a dreaded “second wave” of the virus.
But just as fundamental to the shape of our post-pandemic world is the question of how we will cover actual distances in our socially distanced lives.
Below, we preview how COVID-19 could upend the ways we get around – or simply accelerate changes that have long been in motion.
In good times, mass transit is a critical transportation hub that offers affordable and/or convenient access to mobility for millions. In the age of COVID-19, however, it sounds like some kind of doomsday device: jam a bunch of people in artificially close proximity and whisk them through a major metropolitan area thousands of times per day, introducing new subjects to this mad experiment at regular intervals throughout the route.
This dichotomy – the need for economical mobility vs. fears of its elevated exposure risks – largely defines the current and future predicament of public transportation. And in the short term, that future is stark.
According to the Los Angeles Times, ridership on L.A. Metro bus and train lines is down around 70% from normal levels, with 29 COVID-19 cases reported among its employees, contractors and vendors. Things are far more dire at the country’s biggest transit agency, as the New York City subway system has reported losing more than 90% of its riders due to the coronavirus crisis, which has devastated its financial prospects and left 79 of its workers dead.
But the fact that both systems are operating at all right now – with service cuts of between 20% to 30% – speaks to how critically they factor into the lives of those who rely on them as their sole means of transportation.
As the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles wrote in an email to L.A. Metro’s operations staff: “Social distancing is not a privilege that all L.A. residents have.”
While we can assume that metropolitan transit systems will survive – through raising fares, increasing taxes, or even earmarking planned improvement budgets for operations – the experience of riding them could look very different in a post-coronavirus world, experts say.
Both low-tech disinfecting and high-tech hygiene practices, strict new capacity limits, and real-time data technology meant to better spread ridership out system-wide are all measures that are – and will continue to be – implemented to attempt to solve public transportation’s biggest ongoing hurdle: restoring the public’s confidence in riding them.
As Greenbiz’s Katie Fehrenberger wrote: “Public transit is going to really struggle to bring back ridership and convince riders (and drivers) that these mass shared environments can keep people safe from viruses.”
Evoking many of the same safety concerns as boarding a subway train, getting into a stranger’s car to go across town seems as foreign to many of us right now as it might have to someone in 2008.
Similar to numbers seen on public transit systems, ridesharing is reported to be down 60% to 70% in the cities hardest hit by COVID-19. Drivers who used to make $150 to $200 per day now say they’re lucky to make $20 to $40 – all while having to take extreme measures to stay safe.
But with America’s economic shutdown and social-distancing measures beginning to ease, there is plenty of evidence (and logic) to suggest that the sector could be just as nimble in its recovery from the pandemic as it can be in delivering your late-night ride home. But that could take time, said Uphail founder Avil Wilensky, whose platform compares prices between available ridesharing and taxi rides.
With one-third of Uphail’s traffic consisting of airport runs, Wilensky said it may take “two or three years” for that share of the ridesharing business to recover, based on expectations for the airline industry as expressed by Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun.
However, another 20% of ridesharing use is related to work or school commutes, which Wilensky said he expects to restore to normal levels once state restrictions are lifted and schools and offices reopen.
Ridesharing’s recovery will also be helped in that it occupies a conceptual middle ground between public transit and driving a personal car. After all, getting into a backseat alone is a world away from jamming your way into a train filled with dozens of other passengers. Hygiene and sanitation are also easier to manage, while rules – like Lyft and Uber’s recently enacted mandatory face mask policies – can be implemented by edict nationwide and reported on by riders with a simple tap on their phones.
“Certainly, riders may be wary in the near term to opt for shared or pooled rides,” Wilensky told Fair. “However, this is certainly a better option for distancing than taking a crowded bus or train.”
There are also glimmers of optimism among rideshare drivers banking on a return to normalcy. Part-time driver Teresea Melendez told The Salt Lake Tribune that driving for Uber made for a good second income before self-quarantining related to COVID-19 crippled demand for the service and left her sidelined. Still, she said she fully expects to be picking up riders again when rideshare users start coming back to the service.
“I will definitely return to driving,” Melendez told the Tribune. “My husband is still looking for a job and with the hip-replacement surgery, it’ll be a while before he can actually work, so Ubering is still going to be best for us.”
Cars have suffered many predicated deaths over the years at the hands an ever-changing roster of suspects – from subways to ridesharing apps to autonomous shuttles.
And while some people point to a coronavirus-induced trend toward remote work as the newest car killer, experts say our personal rides are likely to have solid footing in the post-pandemic world.
The biggest thing cars have going for them, of course, is that they represent a direct solution to the problems inherent in ridesharing and public transit.
“People are using their cars more because they are afraid to use public transportation,” Patrick Pouyanne, the chief executive of French oil company Total SA, told Bloomberg.
Unlike subways, cars offer a solitary and sanitary environment for us, our stuff and the extremely short list of family members and close friends who step foot inside. In a sense, cars are essentially social-distancing measures on wheels – powerful cache as we begin to contemplate steps toward whatever the post-pandemic landscape eventually looks like.
“The world will eventually return to normal and those who need their cars will drive them as often as they did before,” said auto expert Richard Reina, the Product Training Director at CARID.com.
In addition to their functional purpose, the COVID-19 shutdown has also turned our cars into our mobile offices, personal escape hatches, and windows to the world – especially as the prospects of air travel remain highly uncertain.
“Driving your own car means personal safety, and the ability to be on work calls, including conference calls, in private. It also means you have a clean environment for your family,” automotive expert Lauren Fix told Fair.
And while COVID-19’s ongoing economic fallout is likely to continue to have a significant impact on car sales in the near term, it could end up accelerating trends already evident in the space, including an ongoing shift from new to pre-owned cars.
As Dave Morris, Chief Merchandising Officer at CarParts.com, told Fair: “This is not a great time to be selling new cars.”
With used cars costing a little more than half what new cars do ($20,000 versus $37,000, according to Kelley Blue Book), a record 62% of customers with prime credit opted to buy used instead of new in the first quarter of 2019 – a trend that is unlikely to reverse amid the financial uncertainty and no-frills reality thrust upon us by the current crisis.
The corononavirus pandemic has also helped speed fundamental changes in how we get our cars – from car subscriptions that allow customers to simply turn their car in if the economic tides turn to widespread adoption of “touchless” delivery and the mainstreaming of app- or web-based shopping.
“Car dealerships have long been overly reliant on face-to-face transactions, and car sales are one of the last retail environments to fully embrace online shopping,” Reina told Fair. “Now that dealers have no choice but to enter the world of virtual sales, they likely won’t turn back.”