Five predictions for the future of commuting
From contactless journeys to working closer to home, here are five things the future might have in store for how, why and when we travel to work
Travelling to the workplace is unlikely to be the top of many people’s list of things they miss since the Covid-19 crisis forced millions to stay at home. Yet, just as the pandemic has forced a rethink of agile working and the role of the traditional office, there are also signs that commuting will change for the better, too. Here are five ways that might happen in 2021.
1. Connected and contactless journeys
Greater connectivity will make journeys smoother, faster and less stressful. Pre-booking seats is one way to avoid unnecessary congestion on public transport – something that’s already common in busy Chinese cities including Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The Whim app, for example, is already being used in Helsinki. It monitors your journeys, then shares the data on how you use everything from cycle hire to trains and buses with transport providers. It then allows users to book tickets for all modes of transport in just one app.
For road users, apps such as Waze allow drivers to share helpful data on traffic, so routes can be better planned and hopefully less congested.
AI technology is also likely to play an important role in preventing future epidemics, with facial sensors like those used in Beijing last February measuring body temperature and preventing anyone showing signs of a fever from travelling.
Reducing the risk of infection now and in the future has also led to an increased drive to roll out contactless ticketing technology across public transport systems around the world – whether that’s using smartphone apps, bluetooth or credit cards. According to a survey conducted by the Payments Journal in March last year, there has been a 30% increase in the use of contactless payments since the outbreak of the pandemic.
2. Shorter commutes
The pandemic and the rise in home working has led to many companies re-evaluating the role of expensive city centre offices. Amid the challenge of adapting to the ‘new normal’, many big businesses are increasingly choosing to keep their headquarters but operate multiple regional offices or co-working spaces (known as the ‘hub-and-spoke’ model), allowing employees to find a balance between home working and office working.
Recent research by recruitment firm Robert Walters reveals that more than a third (37%) of business leaders are considering downsizing their primary office space served by smaller satellites closer to where their employees live. It follows a study by RightMove that shows 85% of employees expect continued flexibility to work from home post-Covid-19, and a 130% increase in homebuyer searches in the countryside.
Big businesses already using this model include British banks such as Virgin Money, which has been identifying branches where office staff who live locally could work rather than travelling into city centres. Meanwhile, Google has announced its plans to create new, smaller hub offices, which will give employees more flexibility around where they live.
3. Shorter work weeks
Even before the pandemic, the number of peak-hour commuter journeys was already falling, as more employers offered flexible working options. That trend is likely to continue as appetite grows for more home working in the future. A survey in May showed that 55% of US workers want a mixture of home and office working. In the UK, employers expect the proportion of regular home workers to double, from 18% pre-pandemic to 37% post-pandemic. And 74% of firms now plan on maintaining the increase in home working.
Calls for a four-day week are also being taken seriously by many corporations, with Unilever in New Zealand one of the biggest names to announce staff would switch to the new timetable on the same pay.
4. Fewer cars on the roads
With many people abandoning public transport during the pandemic, interest in cycling surged with manufacturers and retailers reporting a rise in bicycle sales. Even before the pandemic, a study by Deloitte predicted that the number of people who bike to work would double in many major cities around the world by 2022.
But sales of e-bikes also boomed in 2020 and could provide a practical alternative for those who don’t want to break too much of a sweat before working in the office.
Indeed, e-bike owners have been found to cycle more frequently and for longer distances than conventional cyclists. And in 42 studies examining the impact of e-bike use on other travel modes, the proportion of car journeys substituted after people bought e-bikes ranged from 20% to as high as 86%. That means less congestion on the roads, as well as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
5. More flexible (and comfortable) commuting options
Commuting costs could be radically slashed to respond to new working patterns. In the UK, a leading train firm has already introduced flexible three-day-week season tickets for commuters travelling into London, as thousands continue working from home due to Covid-19.
A spokesperson for Great Western Rail told The Sunday Times: “Our research suggests commuters will travel, on average, into work three days a week, rather than the current five.”
“While a peak-time season ticket has long been an essential for those travelling into a city every day, they make no sense for those who want to switch between working at home and their office,” adds the newspaper.
And the days of being crammed into a packed train carriage or bus could be numbered, too. Countries including the UK are using the latest tech to help ease overcrowding on public transport. Automated passenger counters and weight sensors provide information about capacity to commuters via smartphone apps or display screens at stations so customers know where the least packed carriages are and can spread themselves out.
Mobile apps can also notify commuters of crowding and potential problems before starting their journey, providing alternative routes if possible. Cities including New York, for instance, are using technology such as passenger-flow monitors and real-time data from public transport operators to help make journeys as seamless as possible.
Similarly Google Maps has rolled out a new feature in more than 200 cities worldwide to let commuters know how full they should expect the next bus or train to be.