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Transportation / Healthy Cities

Study to explore potential of new modes of transit to safeguard commuters

By Andrew Sansom 05 May 2020 0

The impact of COVID-19 on mobility and transport has prompted researchers in the US to embark on a study of the potential for shared bikes and e-scooters to help protect certain key workers – such as those employed in medical facilities, grocery stores and takeaway restaurants – while they commute to and from their place of work.

In metro areas, most workers will often need to take some form of transit to get to their jobs, and these journeys may put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The opportunity for shared bikes and e-scooters to address this issue is now the subject of a collaborative project between Professor Chris Cherry and Assistant Professor Candace Brakewood, both of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and John MacArthur, sustainable transportation programme manager at Portland State University.

The main question they want to answer is whether widespread adoption of new modes of transportation, such as bike share and e-scooters, could offer workers a way to get to work without putting them in the close confines of other passengers on traditional transit, and whether people would even choose these modes in the first place.

The project is backed by a National Science Foundation RAPID Award. These awards are granted for research with “a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to, data, facilities or specialised equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events” – events such as the current pandemic.

The research team is also partnering with local public agencies – WeGo Public Transit in Nashville, Tennessee, and TriMet and the Bureau of Transportation in Portland, Oregon – to look at commuting patterns in both cities. Bike share and e-scooter share companies Bird, Spin, and BikeTown, as well as Transit App, will be providing support to track changes in ridership during the period of recovery.

“Working closely with local and national partners will give us and policymakers a clearer picture of where transportation priorities and opportunities lie,” said MacArthur. “We’re hoping our models can help predict how city transit systems will recover for current and future public health crises.”

Cherry added: “Transportation demand has dropped by 50 to 90 per cent across all modes in the US and transit has been particularly hard hit, with micromobility modes like shared bikes and electric scooters also seeing large drops in use.

“As travel demand recovers, it’s important to understand the role of all shared modes in restarting the economy and maintaining social distancing.”

One of the early findings is that answers to those questions vary greatly by city and region. In New York and Chicago, for example, bike share usage was up 65 per cent from the same date the year before, but in Seattle and San Francisco, bike share use had plummeted.

The reason for the variance may lie with the cities themselves.

“It’s not surprisingly tied to the kind of response the city had to the virus,” Brakewood said. “In Seattle and San Francisco, there was a greater shutdown of activity and at an earlier date than in Chicago and New York. Where businesses stayed open longer, workers were required to report longer, but the good thing is that it shows that those workers at least tried to find methods of commuting that still allowed them to be better spaced from others.”

Beyond Nashville and Portland, the team will look at ridership trends across various modes of transportation, giving them a clearer understanding of how other US cities and their workers respond to times of crisis, and helping guide future decisions.