The new 'Touch-Free' society

Parking and mobility will lead the way
There’s a reason the word “unprecedented” is now plastered across our cultural landscape. No one has seen anything like this. The parking and mobility industries will need to be particularly dynamic as countries reopen and recover at different traits. This flexibility and change are already something that these industries were already adjusting to.

Statistical insights and informed planning are needed to get a sense of what comes next. With more than 20 million customers in more than 930 cities, PARK NOW Group is uniquely situated to access digital parking data. We interviewed some of our sector’s experts and contrasted their ideas with our visionary leaders across seven countries.

Our panel provided thoughts on the factors at play, possible outcomes, challenges to be met, tools at hand and ongoing environmental concerns. Though they disagreed on some details, they were aligned on the big changes that are in progress. Large-scale travel will resume, but mobility is moving towards a shared model. Local authorities will change their deployment of parking resources, while, most importantly, Western countries will sprint towards a contactless/cashless society to protect public health.

Coronavirus has accelerated the evolution of touchless payments and mobility. As restrictions ease, digitalisation will become standard. Local authorities looking to keep constituents safe know that parking meters are no longer the best payment of choice. New York City recently deployed Parkmobile and ParkNYC to eliminate cash payments at 14,000 parking machines across the city, while across the UK more than 8000 machines have been removed in recent years.
Digital parking providers can and should share the responsibility of supporting public health in cities across Europe through their solutions.

Sustainability and health go hand-in-hand; by focussing on reservations, insights in parking availability and emission-based solutions for cities the parking industry can make an impact on both critical areas.

The digital tools are already in place for the mobility sector to be a beacon leading towards a touch-free economy. Contactless parking solutions can show a model for a healthier, cashless society.

The crisis highlighted a sector in flux
Before Covid-19, the mobility sector had already been upended by advances in sharing technologies and new approaches sparked by environmental concerns. Now, contradictory forces are pushing these innovations to the forefront. As David Lainé, Commercial Director of Trafi in France, points out, “Cars are only used 4% of the time” and if companies continue remote working or alternate workdays, as is currently being discussed, that number will drop even lower. However, fear of public transport may ultimately drive higher individual car usage in the short and long term.

“Mobility in general is getting reassessed,” notes PARK NOW Group Germany Managing Director Marko Hrankovic. “Cycling is getting promoted and things that had been languishing in the docket are now being pushed to the forefront.”

In fact, local authorities are trying to react quickly, sometimes finding local options more flexible to implement and most adaptable as the situation evolves. Tony Ralph, Islington’s Service Director of the Public Realm, is seeing this not just within his borough, but across the diverse range of surrounding councils. “The real scale of the impacts of this crisis are most likely not fully understood.” He is certain, however, that the public and private sectors will be adapting quickly to implement a wide range of safety measures.

Mobility will recover 100%
The wide range of outcomes complicates predictions. Our experts disagreed on the timeline for resuming work travel, though all agreed it would be in a familiar form within the next two years. Joris Petillion, PARK NOW Group Belgium Managing Director, predicts that “this year, there will be more teleworking, as people have seen the utility and the social pressure to travel is gone. By next year, however, commuting will return to normal. People have short memories – and Belgium is a car-addicted country.”

Giuliano Mingardo concurs. The Senior Researcher at the Netherlands’ Erasmus Centre for Urban, Port and Transport Economics thinks that there will be a transition period and some minor adjustments, but he believes our habits will overcome any change to work travel prompted by the lockdowns. “It happened super-fast, we went from 100 to 0. We can also go back to 100 super-fast when everything is allowed. That’s why I think we will be back to business again within a year and nothing will have changed.”

Experts predict lasting changes
This isn’t to say that mobility will go back to how it was in 2019. Companies now know they can save money by opting for virtual solutions and remote meetings. The virtual framework they were forced to construct out of necessity can be maintained to maximise physical resources and minimise space costs. Olivier Koch, Managing Director ParkNow France, also believes the lockdown has led to “a change in state of mind: fewer companies will think that remote working is not efficient. This crisis has proven that this is a misconception.”

The return to normalcy will also bring large questions about congestion and public transport. A Chinese study found that traffic jams increased by about 20% in 17 cities after lockdown because people didn’t want to be on public transport. The experts believe this is likely in Europe as well, though they varied in expectations of duration and effect. Peter O’Driscoll, Managing Director of RingGo in the UK, believes that while people will stay home and be wary of public transport after the lockdown ends, by August or September they’ll be drifting back to usual transportation options, though this varies by region. Additionally, not only does he expect there will be more cycling, but he also foresees an acceleration of electric scooter usage and legislation.

This cycling trend is happening in Germany as well, where Hrankovic says that people will avoid public transport, especially if social distancing rules stay in effect through autumn and winter. This could lead to more individual cars, but if group transport options (shared vehicles, taxis, ridesharing, etc.) can ensure safety and accurately communicate this to the public, there could be a shift towards them.

Post-crisis challenges force a shift to a touchless society
There will be a profound shift towards contactless payments as governments and businesses alike look for every way to reduce the virus’ spread. Hrankovic pointed out that the whole digital sphere has been heavily re-evaluated in the past couple of months after years of doubt. Petillion agrees, “Man is a creature of habit; habit is shifting.” O’Driscoll and Ralph point out that local authorities are now considering virtual parking enforcement, with no need to put a ticket on the car. While forward-looking cities like Amsterdam and the private parking sector have worked in this system for years, some local authorities were reluctant to explore this before the crisis. Now, councils across the UK are removing parking machines from streets to reduce the likelihood of illnesses being passed by so many hands touching machines.

Of course, the road to contactless parking has some bumps. Some elderly people are uncomfortable with contactless payments or unable to physically manipulate the technology. Some councils may also need to address the limited distribution of smartphones or the internet itself. As cashless and contactless parking gained popularity before the crisis, a number of local authorities had made the conscious decision to make cashless cheaper than cash– following the lead of Hackney, Brent and Tunbridge Wells Councils in the UK – by raising cash charges above the levels paid by phone.

It’s no surprise that governments and the mobility sector face some unique challenges as the lockdowns end. In order to comply with social distancing, France would need to scale up public transport by a factor of three, according to Lainé. As in the Chinese study, there’s a real danger of a flood of traffic if people avoid public transport. Currently, two thirds of Parisians don’t own a car. To preserve the air quality and reduce traffic, they need options other than car ownership or public transport to commute when they don’t feel safe. The solution is to spread mobility. Paris authorities recently announced the creation of 650km of bike lanes, while Milan has included pedestrian and bike streets in its post-lockdown planning.

Parking as an important city income
Local authorities are facing huge holes in their budgets, as they have either stopped charging for parking or seen demand for parking disappear. Many are offering free parking to healthcare workers, and others have taken away all parking charges. In Belgium, parking turnover has dropped to an almost zero. All travel outside of crucial jobs and groceries is forbidden, which is enforced with hefty fines. In Berlin, overall mobility declined more than 50%. “From a parking perspective,” remarks Ralph about Islington, “we have seen the overall revenue of the service decrease from reduced travel and downsized parking enforcement. We have adopted a measured approach and focussed on enforcement to support the supply chain and enable safe and reliable passage around the borough for key workers.” It will take many tools to bridge this gap, but one of them is certainly contactless payment. Residents will be far more likely to use paid parking if they can pay without having to touch a potentially infected parking machine.

The solutions of the future
Luckily, there are some great problem-solving tools at hand. In the Netherlands, Esther van der Meer, MD of PARK NOW NL, noted that PARK NOW Group’s services can actually help implement social distancing. It can limit parking in specific areas, such as lots outside of parks or other attractions. It could use metadata to see congestion and help predict or catch lapses in crowd control. This traffic mapping could even be used to fight future outbreaks or help with disaster prevention.

Lewis Wray, Director of WSP in the UK, suggests a creative solution to the gap in retail parking demand. Local authorities can make money by monetising kerb space. Many places are seeing less car travel into central zones. Deliveries, however, still need to happen. Some of this is due to London specific auto restrictions, and some is due to reduced retail-oriented travel due to online shopping. That empty kerb space could not only be used for those deliveries, but it can also be monetised in a way that makes things easier for the businesses by using reservations via an online platform.

Environmental concerns
This moment may prove to be a tipping point in sustainability. Wray believes that while the tension between the economy and environment still exists, the drive for a cleaner environment will continue after the crisis. Cities will still need to control automotive crowding and reduce parking congestion in urban areas. Moreover, the current environmental push could accelerate as attention goes to digital. “People have seen the knock-on benefits to the environment very quickly.” Hrankovic concurs. “A ‘green deal’ always included a vision for a new type of mobility, with air travel reduction, the expansion of public transport and bike traffic, etc.” Now, added concerns about health will drive this development even faster.

The crisis is bringing attention to air quality. People across Europe have experienced a vivid demonstration of how polluted their air was before. Now that they’ve experienced the everyday difference of pollution, they will be more aware of environmental impact. Adding more urgency are concerns that air quality may impact Covid-19 mortality rates. O’Driscoll has a three-point approach for local governments to maintain clean air: emission-based parking, bike highways and variable deliveries with reservations. His answer to economic concerns is to balance traffic, trade and air quality through data. “RingGo has millions of users. They can look at millions of data points.” O’Driscoll noted that a major push that councils can make to impact the environment is to adopt Emissions Based Parking (EBP) schemes which encourage those who purchase cars to purchase electric vehicles. Since its adoption in Westminster two years ago, EBP has led to a 38% reduction in nitrogen dioxide in the air while there has been a reduction of 16% in the most polluting diesel vehicles in the area.

The future of mobility
There are many solutions under discussion for the diverse challenges and factors in each country and every city. Two keys to meeting mobility needs and sustainability goals: data and flexibility. Businesses and governments can’t afford to get stuck in a single way of doing things or a rigid viewpoint. They must use data to know which of the many tools they must use to react to the situation in real-time. Moreover, they must act quickly.

The process of digitalisation will continue to accelerate. The numbers of digital payments in the mobility sector will dramatically rise. This will serve us in two ways. Removing the cash parking machines eliminates a vector for infection, not just of coronavirus but any number of colds and flus. Secondly, the data these payments create will map crowds and help track future infections. Reservations will add convenience to commuting and deliveries, as well as helping budget-struck councils find a way to recover. A touch-free and digital society will be the long-lasting effect of this crisis.

There are no simple answers. As Wray noted, “There’s never been an event that’s had such an impact on people.” It is certainly clear, however, that the mobility sector has an incredible opportunity to be a force for positive change. The decisions made now can improve the health and lives of millions, to say nothing about the seismic impact of improving the environment.

For all the sorrow this disease has spread across the globe, there is some comfort in the hope that there will be a dawn after the darkness. For the mobility sector, there is a unique chance to light a path.