Nothing underscores how we do not live in the future as much as the daily commute.
If travelling by car, then, chances are, the vehicle in question is running on a combustion engine – since about 1886 – that is emitting carbon and hastening climate change. The morning headlines blaring from your speakers are transmitted through radio waves, a form of communication that alerted people on land that the Titanic was sinking back in 1912.
Elsewhere, the insult of public transportation is fairly universal. Timely, clean and reliable buses and trams are not the norm, but still the hallmark of a well-managed, well-funded city.
And for those lucky enough to catch the breeze in their hair by walking or biking to work, well, those simple pleasures are more timeless than they are ultra-modern.
Whichever mode of transport you use, the daily commute today does not look all that different from how our grandparents got to work.
The pandemic has changed that, however, all at once, but not for all. Now, more attention is being paid to places that make the commute more sustainable, safer and, in some cases, more fun.
The National speaks to more than a dozen experts in urban planning, economics, transportation and property to understand the changing shape of this global necessity, which has been around since Ancient Greece.
From remote working to virtual reality
A recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicts a now-familiar tableau: a woman in athleisurewear at a kitchen table, laptop open to a Zoom meeting. An open box of treats is beside her. The caption reads: "I brought doughnuts."
It’s funny, but also bittersweet. The social nature of work is ultimately what will drive us back, according to early surveys of remote workers. We protest the sugar-laden pleasures, but deep down, we do want to share that box of doughnuts with our colleagues.
In a recent global survey, property consultancy JLL found that remote work should double to 2.4 days per week post-pandemic, from 1.2 days pre-pandemic.
Most of this nomadic work will happen at home – nearly three-quarters of employees want to continue working from home, two days a week on average. Remote work will also take place in alternative locations such as co-working spaces, which a growing percentage of employees support; 40 per cent now from 30 per cent pre-crisis.
The thing is, where we end up returning to could be far from the offices we left in March 2020.
For those who have swapped their commute with opening their laptop at their dining room table, eventually video meetings will be replaced by a trip to a virtual reality. Some of the world’s most valuable companies – Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and now Roblox – are ramping up efforts to make augmented and VR more of a, well, reality.
Facebook plans to release its first pair of augmented reality glasses this year, seven years after acquiring VR start-up Oculus for $2 billion.
In a podcast interview with The Information last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said: "The holy grail of social experiences is the ability to feel like you're present with another person.
“Nothing that we have in technology today gets close to that with phones or computers or TVs, even video chats. You have technology that allows you to communicate and that can, with different fidelity, help you see what’s going on with the other person. But there’s just something that’s really magical about the sense of presence."
Microsoft is a step ahead. It unveiled its own VR platform for developers earlier this month, called Mesh. It will be compatible with its pricey AR headset, the HoloLens ($3,000 plus), meaning it isn't ready for mainstream or wide business use yet.
Apple, too, is rumoured to have plans to launch an AR device in 2022.
Meanwhile, gaming company Roblox, which went public last month and is now hovering at about $39bn market cap, has a vision to build a real-life metaverse, not unlike the one depicted in pop culture as in the book Ready Player One.
“An average of 36.2 million people from around the world come to Roblox," the company stated in its prospectus filed to the US Securities and Exchange Commission ahead of going public. "Together they play, learn, communicate, explore and expand their friendships, all in 3D digital worlds that are entirely user-generated, built by our community of nearly seven million active developers. We call this emerging category 'human co-experience'."
Ultimately, the company says it wants this "human co-experience" to reach billions of users, and to expand beyond gaming to include meetings, collaboration and participation in the Roblox Economy, built on a digital currency called Robux that can be purchased with hard cash.
The challenge: a matter of social justice
While VR technology is fast developing, in the real world commuting is ultimately shaped by the prevailing forces of economics. And even as tens of millions of Covid-19 vaccine jabs are being administered around the world every day, heralding a return to normal activity, economies are not good.
How people get to and from work came to the fore as a social justice issue in 2020 as essential and wage-based workers – a large fraction of the global workforce – were pressed to continue to physically show up at their jobs, risking their lives instead of their livelihoods.
This happened at the same time that "a lot of cities started to notice that the existing mobility infrastructure is inadequate", Sameh Wahba, global director for urban, disaster risk management, resilience and land global practice at the World Bank tells The National.
The World Bank estimates that about 100 million people are likely to fall into poverty because of the impact of the pandemic, with as many as 49 million falling into extreme poverty. Many of these "new poor" will be people living in cities and who are self-employed, mostly working in the informal sector.
"When we talk about the future of commuting, we cannot isolate low-income workers because they constitute almost one-third of commuters [globally]. And they were hit very, very hard by the pandemic," Shailendra Kaushik, a sustainable urban development expert in Dubai, and co-founder of the Cities Forum, tells The National.
“These innovative modes like micro-mobility and [electric] e-mobility are not made for them, so governments, think tanks and financial institutions must consider how to get them into the mainstream because they are the backbone of the city economy.”
As a result, cities are and will continue to be on the front line of coping with the pandemic and its lasting impacts, according to the World Bank.
Fixing crumbling infrastructure and providing affordable housing to retain essential workers and those that make a city more liveable – from dustbin collectors to baristas and teachers to nurses – are critical to recovery, Wahba says.
“And if these workers cannot afford to live closer to work, in affordable housing, then either you're going to have to compensate for their wages, or you're going to have unfilled jobs,” he says.
“Even in a San Francisco-type place, or any place where there is an affordable housing crisis, has to contend with the inability to attract new workers and its inability to retain talent.”
A key policy to ensure affordable housing, even while new urban development boosts gentrification and property prices, will be inclusionary zoning, or requiring a given share of new construction to be affordable by people with low to moderate incomes, he says.
To that end, experts predict cities will work to continue to make public transport cleaner and safer. They will need to in order to survive.
A major lesson learnt from the fall-out of the pandemic was the symbiotic relationship between public transit and essential workers, who pay the fares that provide the revenue to keep these services running.
Up to one-third of people in some cities have stopped using public transport since the onset of the pandemic. According to research by the World Economic Forum into the travel habits of people in 104 cities across 28 countries, lockdowns, the rise of remote working and stay-home orders have all meant a reduction in the volume of people commuting.
In the Greek city of Thessaloniki, for example, 34.3 per cent of people no longer use public transport because of the pandemic. In the US, about half of all commuters say they are using public transit services less frequently as a consequence of the health crisis. By comparison, half of the people in Spain say their use of public transport has remained the same, or even increased, despite the pandemic.
Keeping this base of ridership safe has taken on a new urgency amid the pandemic, Kaushik says, if public transportation is to flourish once again.
Can’t stop, won’t stop
If Covid-19 has taught us anything it is that we are at the mercy of biology – and this knowledge is important to our understanding of how we move about in the world. That is because our biology, for better or worse, drives us to allocate an average of one hour per day to travelling. This is known as Marchetti's constant.
According to Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist who wrote his theory in 1994, villages in Ancient Greece were, on average, 20 square kilometres, so the journey from the centre to the edge was about an hour's round trip at walking pace. This has played out in urban planning even as transportation modes have changed. The size of cities tend to increase in proportion to the speed of their transportation systems, so the periphery is not much more than a 30-minute journey from its core.
Marchetti's constant, despite enduring for millennia, may go extinct as people move around cities in a different way, no longer pulled to a central business district. For some, commutes will be closer to home and will rely on a different mode of transport. But experts say we will continue to move around, and keep the hour allocated to get from Point A to Point B that Marchetti originally described.
"Transportation is very much part of the human condition; we are all born on legs," Yale Wong, principal at Dr Transportation in Sydney, quips. He is a firm believer that Marchetti's constant has shaped cities historically, and that while commuting may change, our need to go places will not.
He advised clients in public transport and micro-mobility in Asia and Australia during the pandemic, and he says this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to harness new technologies and push through politically unpopular reforms that can improve city living.
For cities such as Hong Kong and Dubai, both with high rates of mask-wearing compliance, public transit is not facing the same PR nightmare as it has in the US or the UK. This provides opportunity for places that have clean, rapid public transit to export some of their solutions; for creating jobs, diversifying revenue streams and spurring innovation.
For example, last month, SoftBank Robotics said it will form a new joint venture with a Hong Kong biomedical company that manufactures disinfection robots used to sterilise the city's train cars. The venture will then launch a new cleaning robot tailored for commercial spaces, including offices, hotels and shopping malls later this month.
Wong says this renewed investment in research and development in the public transport sphere is a major opportunity, but he says the first priority should be to reallocate space away from cars towards sustainable public transport, pavements and bike paths.
While the concept isn’t very modern – no driverless Apple Car slipping into a parking space here – “that’s often the simplest, the cheapest and the highest return-on-investment thing you can do”.
Richard Lambert, founder of London's Natural Walking Cities, agrees, and says the pandemic accelerated a trend of people spending more time in their own neighbourhoods and not venturing to a central business district.
These shorter travel times mean transportation options and city centres can be reimagined. Cars, buses and trains make sense for cross-town trips, but walking, scootering and cycling are preferred for somewhere nearby.
“When you invest in walking and cycling, people spend more money on high streets, real estate values go up, it can be a win-win in certain situations,” he says.
Urban centres will not only be populated by office blocs and fast-casual restaurants . Instead, Lambert predicts these will be repurposed to provide cultural and activity hubs, residential space and more innovative dining and retail options.
During the pandemic, cities around the world repurposed public space for recreational purposes. Early on, the city of Oakland in California in the US began temporarily closing some streets to through traffic to promote physically distanced pedestrian and cycling activity during the shelter-in-place orders, coined its ‘Slow Street programme’.
The irony of this public experiment in survival is that we realised biking, al fresco dining and park lounging are all lovely pastimes. Wahba of the World Bank says this will spur an even larger focus on liveability.
Cities also began questioning if they had adequate infrastructure for safe commutes. Some places, from Washington to Auckland, widened pavements. In the European Union, more than $1.1bn has been spent on cycling-related infrastructure and 2,300km of new bike lanes have been introduced since the pandemic began, according to the European Cycling Federation.
In Oakland, city leaders are now surveying residents to see if the programme worked and if it should stick beyond the pandemic. Meanwhile, San Francisco, London, Houston and Providence introduced their own slow streets.
Cities with more green spaces are also likely to attract residents in the recovery, according to urban scientists at the University of Omaha. In Oslo for example, the city’s 60 square metres of green space per inhabitant experienced a surge in use during the lockdown, with the highest increase observed in greener and more remote areas.
Helping residents reconnect with nature is likely to result in benefits to well-being and physical health, the researchers found.
While in the short term there has been anecdotal evidence of an exodus of families from cities to areas with larger homes and more outdoor space, experts say the recovery will emphasise a triumphant return to vibrant urban life. It just may not have a city centre.
This rise of what’s known as mixed-use space is already having an impact on the property market. According to a recent report by CBRE, 86 per cent of North American companies plan to use flexible space as a key part of their property strategies in the future.
Flexible office-space company WeWork has refined its strategy in cities such as Paris, London and New York. People can walk or cycle and be at one of its locations within 10 to 15 minutes in those cities, Riad Thoumas, the company's general manager for the Middle East and Africa, tells The National.
In China, where WeWork has more than 100 locations and the country is charting a recovery, 90 per cent of workers have already returned.
Thoumas says the company is focused on offering memberships to a more nomadic workforce, so they have access to any location in the world, meaning a commute may look more like travel.
Greater access to flexible office space anywhere in a city will change the real estate market. Wahba says on a global level, he expects cities to possibly “even out a little bit”.
“It's no longer going to be the highest land values in the city centre and lower land values in the periphery, if the periphery has much more of the amenities.”
The opportunity: e-bikes and scooters
Jaideep Dhanoa has founded an electric scooter start-up not once but twice.
His first effort, Circ, clocked more than half a million trips in the Middle East when its parent company, Bird, shut it down at the start of the pandemic. But he remained a believer and in November 2020, he launched Fenix, offering thousands of e-scooters for use in the UAE and Qatar.
The changes he made this time around speak to emerging commuting trends.
First, Fenix is not targeting only buzzy business districts. Instead, scooters can be found in smaller, quieter communities in Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. The wider adoption of e-scooters pushed Dhanoa to add a subscribe-to-own option, with plans starting at Dh100 per week or Dh200 per month, meaning it's more cost-effective to rent a private e-scooter than to buy one. Users can permanently own the bike if they sign up for a 24-month subscription plan.
Safety, too, is a major focus for the company. The handlebars are heat-resistant and equipped with a hand sanitiser pump. The app alerts the Fenix crew when a scooter needs to be disinfected after use.
Micro-mobility companies globally are increasingly releasing new features that make bikes and scooters more comfortable, easier to ride and safer, according to CB Insights, which outlined many newcomers to the space.
Rad Power Bikes from the US, for example, has a new e-bike that features cargo space that could also be used for commercial deliveries. Companies focused on connectivity, such as Germany’s FAZUA, are developing connectivity software for riders to share stats with each other, introducing an element of competition.
E-bike maker Cowboy, from Brussels, has models with built-in GPS and an integrated Sim card that allows riders to lock and unlock the bike with an app, as well as detect battery level.
Meanwhile, the “best” scooters on the market “will feature sensors and software that track batteries, motors, data encryption, communication and decision-making”, according to CB Insights.
While electric bikes and scooters are set to be a mainstay in our post-pandemic realities, electric vehicles, too, appear poised for a surge.
Traffic and congestion may not have returned to pre-pandemic levels practically anywhere, but early data from navigation company TomTom suggests it is starting to pick up, in part bolstered by a preference for single passenger vehicles over public transport.
“After having seen empty streets and highways, we are witnessing now congestion, traffic, gridlock and crowded parking,” Ferial Ouahrani, an expert in transport and urban planning at Cities Forum in Dubai, tells The National.
Suppliers are optimistic about electric vehicles, says CB Insights. Demand has already recovered in China and regulation and falling battery costs are likely to continue propelling adoption.
Self-driving technology for cars, however, has taken a back seat to a focus on fully autonomous delivery vehicles, which have more immediate and widespread use cases.
The power of advertising
Like it or not, advertising makes up the bulk of visual stimuli on an average commute. Those who sell advertising space on hoardings came limping into 2021.
But a viral advertisement amid the GameStop-Reddit trading saga points to the future of hoardings, and the advertising we see in cities. Increasingly, outdoor campaigns will be tied to online marketplaces and real-time consumer insights.
At the peak of the trading frenzy, Twitter user and TPS Engage co-founder Matei Psatta replied to a tweet from Elon Musk about GameStop short-sellers with a photo of an advertisement hoarding in Times Square.
The ad read "$GME GO BRRR” in reference to the stock symbol for GameStop and a Reddit meme that mimics the sound of money being printed. TPS Engage disclosed in a blog post that it had paid $18 for the digital hoarding to play a 15-second advertisement for 10 plays over the course of an hour.
It was not only a push for the stock but a shrewd act of guerrilla advertising for the digital hoarding booking platform, which allows anyone to buy hourly slots on hundreds of thousands of hoardings all over the world. Someone took a photo and posted it on several subreddits, where it quickly became one of the most-viewed posts of all time on the site.
“The pandemic has done wonders to help the digital transformation of the Out Of Home [hoarding] industry,” TPS Engage co-founder and chief executive Bogdan Savonea tells The National.
He says advertisers are leaning toward “micro-targeting and micro-buying” of advertisements. The company increased revenue in 2020 over 2019 because it offered this option.
“The beauty is that ad technology is evolving at the same time with commuter behaviour,” he says. “Five years ago, if you wanted to buy just key hours on a certain billboard, you couldn’t. In five years from now, it will be the norm and we will be shocked that we ever did this differently.”
Savonea predicts commuting will transform in the coming years and peak hours may change as a result.
And advertising will only be one of many industries to be affected.