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Driving Change

Will COVID-19's transport slowdown stick?

It takes a global pandemic — and subsequent ordered and self-imposed quarantines — to really expose just how dependent societies are on mobility and transportation. 

The spread of COVID-19 has disrupted all manners of movement, starting at the individual level and moving on up to the community, city, country and global level. Some of these mobility restrictions are direct and visible — such as a massive drop in public transit use — and some are largely invisible and will send ripples indirectly out along logistics networks and supply chains. 

On the individual level, it's a real shock to suddenly be immobile and largely confined to your home. I'm lucky enough to be able to work from home, and I've typically been leaving the house once a day to walk a few blocks, keeping that six-foot social-distance length between me and any passersby. Three city blocks and, say, 30 minutes — that's my new window of mobility.

But this Washington Post data visualization excellently expresses why limiting movement is such an important way to slow down the spread of a virus in a pandemic. This could be the new normal for at least the next eight weeks in the United States.

Zoom up to the global macroeconomic level, and these individual restrictions equate to entire industries faltering.

United says it carried 1 million fewer passengers in the first two weeks of March compared with a year ago (March tends to be airlines' busiest month). The airline is cutting flights by 50 percent in April and May, with continued cuts into the summer, and the company says even those flights are expected to be less than a third full. 

The U.S. airline industry is already asking the federal government for a $60 billion bailout. The U.K. airline industry is asking for $6 billion to $9 billion.

There will be huge losses across sectors that rely on and deliver transportation. 

At some point — likely much further down the road than we think — the restrictions on our mobility will start to be lifted and movement slowly will start again. It has, tentatively, already in China, which passed through the storm first. 

Perhaps the silver lining of a prolonged restriction of movement will mean an unconscious rethinking of mobility and society and a trend toward a slower and more sustainable version.
And I'm wondering whether as societies ramp back up and people start moving again, will the lengthy and painful slowdown have a lingering and profound effect on how movement in societies operate?

Will former driving commuters insist that telecommuting is the way to go, making their lives better and inadvertently lowering transportation carbon emissions? Will all those frequent flyers decide they actually like staying local and can ditch the on-the-go lifestyle? Will many events trend to the virtual, as we figure out how to weave unforeseen benefits into the digital versions?

Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort argues that this post-virus world is causing a "quarantine of consumption," which will have a major cultural and economic impact as people get used to living with fewer possessions and traveling less. She says:

We will be in a position of having a blank page for a new beginning because lots of companies and money will be wiped out in the process of slowing down. Redirecting and restarting will require a lot of insight and audacity to build a new economy with other values and ways of handling production, transport, distribution and retail.

It's somewhat callous and idealistic to think of a potential future shift in the system, when so much loss and hardship is coming. But perhaps the silver lining of a prolonged restriction of movement will mean an unconscious rethinking of mobility and society and a trend toward a slower and more sustainable version. I guess we'll see when we get through the other side.

In the meantime, expect COVID-19 disruptions and national recessions to negatively affect many areas of clean transportation, like the deployment of electric vehicles. The analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) released a note last week that says: "The global auto market is very sensitive to macroeconomic conditions and will be hit hard by the coronavirus and any economic contraction that accompanies it. This will have ramifications for electric vehicles and for battery demand."

Likewise, carbon-reduction plans from struggling transportation companies, such as airlines, will inevitably be pushed back as they just try to survive. The New York Times recently published a report that noted that COVID-19 is complicating airlines' efforts to tame their greenhouse gas emissions.

It's going to be a rough couple of months. Stay healthy and positive.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here.

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