Commuting to Work While Social Distancing
Sat, April 17, 2021

Commuting to Work While Social Distancing



People around the world continue to struggle with the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Transit systems in urban areas are either operating on reduced hours and occupancy or closed completely. After months of adopting working from home, some firms encouraged their employees to return to the office. But things now look different than they used to as people still have to observe social distancing.

To commute or not to commute?

Emily Sohn, writing for National Geographic, says that commuters now have to pay their fare without touching anything as much as possible. Drivers are seated in ventilated compartments but are isolated from their passengers. Seats are also spaced apart with dividers to ensure the safety of commuters. Although pandemic lockdowns have put public transportation in a state of crisis for a while, new technologies, creative thinking, and strategic investment can help people feel safe again to ride in public transit.

International transit consultant Jarret Walker, who wrote the book "Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives," mentions that the world’s transportation history is packed with stories where something did temporarily ended up as something permanent because people no longer wanted to go back to the old means of traveling.

Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine’s clinical professor in psychiatry Ahron Friedberg M.D. shares that he started working from the attic in his home using FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype to communicate with his patients. Despite the freedom in working from home, which also means more leisure, more family time, and more time to exercise, many of his patients are still willing to give it up and begin to commute again if given the choice.

How commuting lets people “disappear” for a while

Dr. Friedberg believes that it could be because people like to “disappear for a while.” Commuting allows people to do that. One of his patients told him that at the end of the day, he wanted to wind down and that’s what commuting provides. Even commuting on a train to work helps such patients wind down. Dr. Friedberg explains that it could be because the person is thinking of the stress that he is in for the day and gets ready for it in advance.

Another patient told Dr. Friedberg that when he gets off the train, nobody sees and recognizes him and it makes him feel that he is in the Foreign Legion, referring to a military unit. It is like a yearning to go back to fantasy, the clinical professor said.

A boom for the micromobility market

Worldwide, cities are eyeing to adapt to a world where individual commuting is viewed as a necessity. Thus, the need for micromobility options. Micromobility refers to a range of small, lightweight devices, such as scooters and bikes.



Micromobility already attracts customers and cash even last year, according to management consulting company McKinsey. Two circumstances drove the market’s accelerated expansion. First is that most launches of shared micro-mobility occurred in a conducive environment where urban consumers already use solutions and value shared micromobility, like e-hailing, ridesharing, and even car sharing. Micromobility also makes people happy way faster than car trips as users enjoy the fresh air while avoiding traffic and traveling to their destinations.

Second, the market has favorable economics. Firms find it easier to scale up their micromobility assets, like the electric bike, than introducing car-based sharing solutions. Industry participants find the economics of shared micromobility favorable. For instance, an electric scooter costs about $400 but it takes thousands of dollars to purchase a car. Hence, micromobility can break even – profits are equal to the cost – in less than four months whereas it would take several years for car-sharing solutions.

McKinsey said that an e-scooter is economical after four months by estimating the revenue and expense per e-scooter ride. The company further estimates that the shared micromobility market in China alone could reach $30 to $50 billion by 2030. In the United States, it could even reach $200 to $300 billion. Such size and scope were even estimated when there was no pandemic to consider yet. As of 2020, the New York Times has reported that there has been a surge in biking in New York city to avoid crowded trains.  The daily said that many commuters are cycling to minimize their risk of Covid-19 exposure.



Downtown Brooklyn-based nonprofit digital publisher’s executive director Marcus, 34, told the New York Times that biking reduced her anxiety and it felt that it would be beneficial to her mental health. She is biking daily to work instead of riding the subway train and she observed that many people are doing the same. The city’s bike-share program called Citi Bike also saw a surge of 67% in March. Between March 1 to 11 alone, there were 517,768 bike trips compared to 310,132 trips in the same period in 2019. To accommodate the increased bike ridership, the city is now considering adding temporary bike lanes. Chicago’s bike-share program has also doubled in the same period.

Database company Statista, citing data from NPD Group’s retail tracking service and UK bike manufacturer Trek, published that 85% of Americans consider it safer to use a bicycle when commuting instead of public transportation during the coronavirus outbreak. There has also been a 121% year-over-year change in leisure bikes service sales in the US as of March 2020, 85% for electric bikes, 66% for commuter and fitness bikes, and 59% for children’s bikes.



Integrating smartphone apps to reduce congestion

In some cities, like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, it has become common to pre-book a seat first. This is also helpful for Covid-conscious commuters as it lessens the number of people who need to touch the kiosk. Google has also started using traffic information and crowdsourcing in over 200 cities around the world to provide users a heads-up on how they should expect trains and buses to be. Yet, it could also mean giving up certain levels of privacy, which other users are not comfortable with. University of Minnesota’s urban planner Yingling Fan told the National Geographic that the trade-off between safety and privacy continues to be a hot topic.

Commuting to work while maintaining social distancing is not easy for those who use public transport. The health risk is still real. It would be helpful if companies continue with the work-from-home model as long as they see fit.