Health and Healthcare Systems

How COVID-19 shows we're wasting the mobility revolution

Passengers wearing face masks ride a subway train on the first day the city's subway services resumed following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Wuhan of Hubei province, the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak, March 28, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song - RC2SSF9A3QMB

Passengers wearing face masks ride a subway train in Wuhan of Hubei province, the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak, 28 March 2020. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Mouchka Heller
Lead, Automotive and New Mobility, World Economic Forum LLC
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  • COVID-19 has shown how inaccessible public transportation options are for the most vulnerable population.
  • We must improve data collection and increase digitization.
  • All policy responses need to include major infrastructure reform.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a powerful – if painful – visual of how far behind we have left our most vulnerable populations. On Monday 23 March, in an effort to distribute 650,000 tests, the Spanish government discovered the reality behind the death of many of its older residents: abandonment and inhumane treatment.

While COVID-19 is presenting and exposing new healthcare challenges, isolation and abandonment of vulnerable populations has been a problem for many years. Already in 2014, the United Nations released a study correlating 75% of infant mortality to systemic gaps in transportation infrastructure. More recently, in 2017, an AARP study showed that social isolation costs Medicare a budget comparable to chronic conditions like arthritis and high blood pressure. The AARP study also showed that 50% more respondents in social isolation than connected to others died within six years.

Unfortunately, neither report caused real change. Nor did the plethora of new data-driven technologies offering potentially ground-breaking insights on people’s effective accessibility to core services like grocery stores, schools, jobs, interviews and doctor’s appointments. For the last century, we have overly relied on public transit to bear the burden of socioeconomic growth and mass access to healthcare.

As COVID-19 has decreased the safety of using public transport options, it is demonstrating how we’ve wasted the tech revolution on providing new mobility options to those who are already served by traditional transport options instead of reaching the vulnerable.

So how can we improve transportation for vulnerable populations? The answer lies in new data and new technology.

Today’s transportation options rely on too many assumptions

Indeed, not only are current mobility solutions available to vulnerable populations insufficient, but they have also been largely impermeable to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Instead, decision-making for their management and deployment are still made off assumptions, using outdated data collection processes that leave crucial blind spots.

We assume, for example, that a supermarket is accessible to an older community if they have to walk 30 minutes to get there or to the nearest bus stop. We think these same buses can be used year-round, even without a bus shelter, even through snow storms. We also assume that the often large mobility deserts left, geographic areas over 30 minutes away from any mode of mobility aside from individually owned cars, will not have much of an impact on the economy, society, or public health.

This virus that mostly affects vulnerable populations - older people and individuals with compromised immune systems among others - has brought the entire world to a halt. We have been hailing a technological revolution meant to transform expectations for quality of life, but COVID-19 is a powerful visual to suggest we are actually wasting it on over-solicited customers instead of ensuring the viability of our world.

Modernizing transportation solutions

Now that COVID-19 has shown us how inaccessible public transportation options are for the most vulnerable population, how can we fix it? The first step is good data.

The very first step we must take is in data collection. If we combined datasets from all public and private mobility providers, we would have the complete image of how people move and need to move. We could then map the world’s blindspots and rethink the business model of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This seemingly simple step is deceptive. It requires true multi-stakeholder collaboration, alignment on public-private data sharing processes such as the one launched by the Open Mobility Foundation, and a framework for value creation in public-private joint ventures. It means tackling questions such as the viability and sustainability of our current public transit systems if we ever are to implement high occupancy solutions to realize our ambitious goals to fight climate change.

It implies the integration of disparate mobility solutions, and digitization of current infrastructure to implement more agile responses to emergency situations. Last but certainly not least, it necessitates courage and honesty to recognize our co-dependencies and the systemic gaps we have allowed to exist and jeopardize our vulnerable populations.

The next step is good policy. Whatever their size, bailouts are not enough. All policy responses need to include major infrastructure reform. Bailouts will not give vulnerable individuals options to access core services that do not expose them to diseases and the world to another public health crisis. They will not guarantee access to work, schools and supermarkets to spend and grow that money. They need to come with strong public-private initiatives that can transform emergency responses into a sustainable transformation.

Luckily, the mobility ecosystem benefits from a historical wave of innovation, from 5G connectivity to ever more inventive mobility modes that are adapting fast to a rapidly changing world. As one of many examples, mobility providers like Revel and Via have launched initiatives to give free access to healthcare workers to their electric mopeds and shuttles so they can get to work more safely and reliably, from Berlin to Queens and Brooklyn. COVID-19 was a stress test for our mobility system. It is up to us to make it the start of a transnational healing process.

In January 2020, in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum announced the Inclusivity Quotient project to do just that. So that crises like COVID-19 start looking very different, but also so that we can start implementing technology deployment models that are both financially and socially more sustainable in the longer term for vulnerable populations like older people, lower-income and rural communities. The very communities that are wondering how they would survive quarantine right now, and whose fate has been so masterfully demonstrated to be co-dependent with the world’s.

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