Who's Who

Shannon Daberkow on COVID-19 and transport


Shannon Daberkow is based in Washington DC, and is Global Product Manager – Data & Analytics at Cubic Transportation Systems.

We’re always pleased to hear from Cubic, one of our cohort of partners here at iMOVE, but we’re particularly pleased to hear from what is a new voice to us, particularly given Shannon’s expertise in the area of data and transport.

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?

COVID-19 is dramatically changing the way that people are getting around. Working from home is at an all-time high and beyond a billion people no longer going to school, as a sense of scale for disruption to routine and regular commuting habits.

There have been substantial declines in ridership numbers, where I live in Washington DC, metro ridership is down 90% compared to pre-COVID-19, and bus ridership down 75%. This decline is being compounded by new capacity limits on board buses to allow for social distancing. This weekend I saw a bus displaying as “full” but with seats available drive past a busy stop and not pick up any passengers, much to the dismay of a traveller queuing in the hot sun. While safety measures like this may be necessary, without proper communication to the travelling public this could deter even more passengers from using the network.

We’re also seeing changes in how people choose to travel when not relying on public transport. People are opting for active modes of travel, like cycling and walking. CitiBike in New York saw a 67% surge in demand in March compared to the previous year. In DC, we are seeing increased demand at bike hire stations near regional parks like Roosevelt Island and Gravelly Point as people are looking for ways to safely be outside.

With more people working from home, one silver lining is that traffic, an unfortunate pillar of life in DC, has been much lighter. Over the week of June 1st, we saw the evening rush hour traffic down 35%—40% compared to the equivalent time last year.

What changes would you like to see in the freight and logistics sector when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

In response to COVID-19, I think agencies have been asked to operate much more flexibly in response to new constraints. This has created a surge of data requests and ad-hoc analysis, from a broader set of stakeholders. I’m hopeful that this new emphasis on data will continue and it will become an integral tool not just for exploring COVID-19 impacts, but for building a more resilient and responsive transport system for the future.

I see an opportunity for transport to take their data assets to create a foundational integrated data toolset across data sources and city stakeholders. It will likely take some time for transport ridership to recover to the new “normal” and being able to monitor, scale and optimise services with ever-changing constraints and demand will be key.

By establishing integrated insights and KPIs across ridership, service performance and congestion agencies will be more equipped to make informed decisions and ensure the resiliency of the transportation network. This vision not only offers the ability to monitor complex interdependent objectives for these areas, but also the ability to influence passenger travel choices based on insights into habits and demand.

For example, take that traveller I saw refused from the bus. If we bring the right data together, we can provide travellers with real-time capacity information, and even warn them of crowding and suggest alternative routes or travel times to consider. The ability to use data insights to influence traveller behaviour creates incredible potential to not only manage crowding on public transport, but to optimise demand across the entire network. Providing real time, personalised traveller information based on these insights can alleviate the impact of disruptions and create a more seamless journey for commuters.

The concept of incentivising traveller behaviour is also underpinned by intelligent data use. Travellers could be offered rewards such as discounted fares, or coffee vouchers for changing their behaviour to suit the real-time needs of the network. Behavioural changes could be as simple as beginning their commute slightly earlier or switching modes to reduce congestion, or it could more complex and focused on achieving broader public policy objectives such as environmental sustainability.

I am incredibly excited by the potential that exists for data to drive these changes. Our networks already collect an incredible amount of data, and this is only increasing as systems become smarter and more connected and visions for MaaS become realised. Although COVID-19 is likely to continue to present challenges to the transport industry for the foreseeable future, I strongly believe that we have the technology and data available to overcome these and create stronger more resilient transport systems long term.

And what changes do you think will happen post-pandemic?

I think it’s hard to predict what will happen, given there are so many new variables that will influence travel behaviour.

For riders that have the luxury to choose, I think we are going to see travellers continue to opt out of using public transport, instead relying on private vehicles and single occupancy passenger vehicles including motorcycles, bikes and e-scooters. Gridlock is likely to return potentially with a vengeance – for example Shenzhen, China has seen a 10% increase in peak hour traffic post-COVID-19 lockdowns compared to 2019 baselines.

On a positive note, this may be an opportunity for government to promote healthy lifestyles by pushing active modes of travel. DC’s capital bikeshare is planning 17 new stations, and cities around the world are widening sidewalks and expanding bike lanes. Data can be an excellent tool to understand usage and distribution of bikes and pedestrians across a city so they can strategically plan capacity expansion, and ensure micro-mobility coverage extends to transport disadvantaged communities. With more cycling and walking, however, it will be critical for cities to take the necessary actions to protect these vulnerable road users.

A major impact of more travellers opting for private vehicles and active modes of travel, could be continued ridership declines for cities. I’ve noticed bus-based ridership has generally experienced a less significant reduction, which I hypothesise is from captive, non-choice riders. Transport systems will likely need to re-align services more frequently to accommodate changing ridership, using analytics on usage and performance to ensure that they are still providing viable service options for those who rely on public transport. Where it may not be financially viable to maintain service, agencies will also need to consider micro-transit or on-demand transport options to ensure equitable transport connectivity.

What I am most fearful of, is greater inequality in our societies and systems, and not just transport systems. The effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minority groups is still emerging; however, current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups. The US Center for Disease Control indicates this is not simply related to underlying health conditions, but access to care, living conditions, and work circumstances – factors which are all compounded by transport disadvantage.

I hope all our leaders – transport and beyond – and all individuals in our society give extra diligence and mindfulness to creating equitable and just systems. With ridership and public transport revenue declining, service cuts may become necessary. It is essential that any measures taken are done after proper analysis to ensure equitable access to transport is provided and does not disproportionately impact lower socioeconomic and rural groups.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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