The new ‘touch-free’ society

Parking and mobility will lead the way. ‘Touch-free’ payments will protect users’ health and provide data for public safety.

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There’s a reason the word “unprecedented” is now plastered across our cultural landscape. No one has seen anything like this. Reopening and recovery will be particularly dynamic for parking and mobility, which were already undergoing a sea change. Statistical insights and informed prognostication 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 most visionary leaders across seven countries.

Our panel opined on the factors at play, possible outcomes, challenges to be met, tools at hand and ongoing environmental concerns. Though they disagreed in some detail, they concurred on the changes in progress. Large-scale travel will probably resume, but mobility is moving towards a shared model. Municipalities will change their deployment of parking resources. Most importantly, Western countries will sprint towards a contactless/cashless society to further protect public health.

The coronavirus has accelerated the evolution of touchless payments and mobility. As restrictions ease, digitalisation will become standard. Authorities looking to keep citizens safe know that cash is no longer the best choice for parking meter payments. Digital parking providers can and should take up their responsibility to support public health in cities across Europe. Even more importantly, sustainability and health go hand-in-hand; by focussing on reservations, insights into parking availability for citizens, and emission-based solutions for cities, the parking industry can change for the better and contribute to pollution reduction.

Park Now Touch Free Society

The digital tools are already in place for the parking sector to be a beacon towards a digital, touch-free economy. Contactless parking solutions can do more than kill the parking meter; they can show a model for a healthier and cashless society. To see how, we must look at the pre-crisis industry, expert predictions for the future of the sector,

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 their time.” If companies continue remote working or alternate workdays, as is currently being discussed, that number will drop even lower. However, fear of public transit may drive higher individual car usage.

“People are afraid to touch urban props”

“Mobility in general is being reassessed,” notes PARK NOW Germany & Austria Managing Director Marko Hrankovic. “Cycling is being promoted and mobility concepts that had already been in discussion for some time are now being pushed to the forefront. A similar effect can be expected for digital parking.” Olivier Koch, Managing Director of PARK NOW in France, has seen the crisis highlight flaws in the municipal mobility structure. “People are afraid to touch urban props,” muses Koch. Tools like parking meters are cleaned infrequently, if at all, and are often built on old-fashioned technologies. Now, even the most change-resistant municipalities are considering cashless and touchless payment systems.

Park Now Touch Free Society

In fact, municipalities are trying to react quickly, sometimes without broader governmental support or a clear picture of their options. Tony Ralph, Islington’s Service Director of the Public Realm, is seeing this not just within his borough but across the diverse range of surround municipalities. “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, but all agreed it would be in a familiar form within the next two years. Joris Petillion, Parkmobile Belgium Managing Director, suggests 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 Dutch Erasmus Centre for Urban, Port and Transport Economics thinks that there will be a transition period and some minor adjustments, but he believes our natures and habits will overcome any change to work travel prompted by the lockdowns. “It happened super-fast that 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 and little will have changed.”

Esther van der Meer, Parkmobile’s Managing Director in the Netherlands, suspects the situation might be a bit more nuanced. “On the one hand, people say: there is so much time for reflection and we, as a global economy, have been able to stop production, flying, commuting and consuming (in many areas). On the other hand, there is science that says: you can hardly change human behaviour.”

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. Koch also believes the lockdown has led to “a change in state of mind: fewer companies will think that remote working is only done by lazy people who just want to stay home to do less. This crisis has proven that this is a total misconception.”

Park Now Touch Free Society

The return to normalcy will bring large questions about automobile traffic congestion and public transit. TomTom’s traffic index reported that in China’s largest city, Shanghai, traffic congestion is almost back to normal levels post lockdown from the Covid-19 outbreak. The experts believe this is likely happening in Europe as well, though they vary in their expectations of duration and effect. Peter O’Driscoll, Managing Director of RingGo in the UK, believes that as lockdowns end, people will at first stay home and be wary of public transit. How and when they drift back will vary by region. Not only does he expect there to be more cycling, but he also foresees an acceleration of electric scooter usage and legislation.

People might prefer cycling rather than public transport, where a safe distance to others cannot always be maintained, according to Hrankovic. The same effect could also lead to higher individual car traffic. Limited group transit options (shared vehicles, taxis, ridesharing, etc.) could also benefit from this trend, but only if they can ensure the necessary safety and communicate it effectively.

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. Petillion agrees, “Man is a creature of habit; habit is shifting.” O’Driscoll and Ralph point out that municipalities 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 done this for years, some municipalities were reluctant to explore this option before the crisis. Now, municipalities across the UK are removing parking meters from streets to reduce the likelihood of illnesses being passed by so many hands touching machines. “In Germany, an increasing amount of municipalities, for example Kaiserslautern are now placing information signage on their parking meters to promote the use of parking apps in order to reduce the risk of an infection”, adds Hrankovic.

“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.’

Of course, the road to contactless parking has some bumps. Some elderly people are uncomfortable with contactless payments or unable to physically use the technology. Some municipalities may also need to address the limited distribution of smartphones or the internet itself. As cashless & 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 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 transit by a factor of 3, according to Lainé. There’s a real danger of a flood of traffic if people avoid public transit. Currently, two out of three Parisians don’t own a car. To preserve the air quality and reduce traffic, they need options other than car ownership or public transit 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

Municipalities are facing huge shortages in their budgets because they have either stopped charging for parking or seen demand for parking disappear. Some are offering free parking to a segment of the community, such as healthcare workers. In Belgium, parking turnover has dropped to an absolute minimum. All travel that’s not for crucial jobs or groceries is forbidden, which is enforced with hefty fines. In Berlin, overall mobility declined more than 50%, according to the March 2020 Citymapper Mobility Index. “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. Drivers will be far more likely to use paid parking if they can pay without having to touch a potentially contaminated meter.

The solutions of the future

Luckily, there are some great problem-solving tools at hand. In the Netherlands, van der Meer noted that PARK NOW Group’s services can actually help implement social distancing. It can limit parking in specific areas, such as in parking lots next to parks and 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. Municipalities can make money by monetising curb space. Many places are seeing less car travel into central zones. Deliveries, however, still need to happen. Some of this is due to London-style auto restrictions, and some is due to reduced retail-oriented travel due to online shopping. That empty curb 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.

Mingardo suggests the reservations are going to be important for travel across the board, as they can cut down on crowding. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) tools are on the rise for businesses and municipalities. New York City recently deployed Parkmobile and ParkNYC to eliminate cash payments at 14,000 parking meters across the city, while more than 8000 machines have been removed across the UK in recent years.

Environmental concerns

This moment may prove to be a tipping point in sustainability. Wray believes that while tension still exists between the economy and the environment, 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.

“RingGo has millions of users. They can look at millions of data points.”

The crisis is also 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.

Park Now Touch Free Society

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 and a 13% reduction 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. There are 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 real-time situation. 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 meter eliminates a vector for infection, not just of the coronavirus but any number of colds and flus. The data these payments create can help in mapping crowds and tracking future infections. Reservations will add convenience to commuting and deliveries, as well as helping budget-struck municipalities 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.
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