This is part 3 of a series on the future of mobility in a post-Covid-19 world. Read Part 2 here
As economic activity starts again, and people’s need to commute returns, the role of self-driven shared mobility startups will be vital—they will account for affordability, efficiency, safety and low-traffic footprint, says Vivekananda HR, co-founder and CEO of bike-rental startup Bounce. Edited excerpts from an interview with Forbes India
Q. What will transportation look like in the post-Covid-19 world in India, in the medium and long term?
The world has been well on its way to a transport system that is hybrid (part public and part shared), electric and data-driven. Covid-19 has only increased accelerated this transformation. There is a strong reason to believe that owned-vehicle commute will dwindle within the foreseeable future; at the same time, the very definition of ownership will transform as intra-city mobility will evolve as a service.
From an India point of view, there is a distinct possibility that we will be ahead of the global curve in this transformation, as currently, only 18 percent of Indians own any form of internal combustion vehicles—burning petrol or diesel. However, we will need greater focus on a holistic commuter system that can cater to different geographies and regions as per local needs.
We will also have to factor in affordability. Covid-19 will nudge people away from public transport to seek newer ways to commute—such as shared mobility in the form of long-term rental, part ownership and leased vehicle. This might push our policymakers to remodel public transport to factor in the need for hygiene, safety and social distancing.
In the immediate period after the lockdown, all stakeholders will focus on building a safe, efficient and affordable commuter system, which will be critical to kickstart economic activity without undoing the impact of the lockdown. The role of self-driven shared mobility services, like Bounce, will be vital as it ranks high in all aspects of mobility—affordability, efficiency, safety, low-traffic footprint.
If we observe post-Covid-19 China’s public transport system, there is a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour towards private vehicles and docked/dock-less shared bikes and cycles. Cities have seen an upsurge in shared-bike rides usage up to 150 percent as users are avoiding public transport as a precautionary measure against Covid-19.
Q. What kind of commute/transport options will people prefer? Why?
People will measure every commuting option on four parameters – affordability, accessibility, reliability and safety. Post Covid-19, people will prioritise safety and hygiene. This shift in priorities will mean that any mode of transport which will have high human-to-human contact, including public transport, will be low in their preference. If ownership, running cost and commute time is not considered, personal vehicles would be a preferred choice. However, at a community/society level, any increase in personal vehicles will be counterproductive.
Q. What will happen to public transport, especially when a majority can’t afford to purchase private vehicles?
Large scale addition of private vehicles is not an option in India as our infrastructure is seriously lacking. Covid-19 will force a restriction of the number of users in an already inadequate public transport system. The way forward is for us to redefine public transport to make it more heterogeneous in nature and rename it as shared transport.
Every kind of public mobility has to transform, either in form or in its offering. Existing public transports like trains, metro and buses will have to be rebuilt to ensure social distancing is incorporated into their physical structure.
For instance, if the government includes self-driven shared scooters as part of the public transport matrix along with ride-hailing cabs, both as a supplement as well as to complement the existing public transport, it can create a seamless mobility network that can discourage use of private vehicles.
Q. Within cities and towns, will new models of ride-hailing emerge that can be part of the solution?
There is an urgent need for new mobility models in cities as well as towns. Driven by technology these options can use resources optimally, provide safe, affordable, and efficient commute and customise the offering to the specific needs of a city, town or region.
Bounce, for instance, has brought in several different ways customers can rent our scooters, depending on their need. One can take a Bounce vehicle for a single ride or rent it for a year. All of these options being completely contactless. This is better than an owned vehicle as the customer does not have to worry about its maintenance.
Bounce is piloting a peer-to-peer sharing model, which we believe has the potential to disrupt shared mobility by unlocking already existing, under-utilised capacity. In Bengaluru alone, there are close to 70 lakh two-wheelers registered as private vehicles, with an average usage of fewer than 10 hours a week. It is possible to help 3x to 4x the number of people to commute without adding a single extra two-wheeler on the road.
Q. What can be done to ensure that for example, when an infected person uses a scooter, the same scooter isn’t shared with other users?
We treat the scooters with an antimicrobial solution. The solution is proven to be highly effective on droplet-based viruses including SARS.
The treatment polymerises to any surface, resulting in a strong barrier with a long history of safe use. This eco-friendly solution, once applied, is effective for more than 90 days even after multiple washes and will not rub off onto the skin. Each bike has a QR code, called a germ sheet. One can scan the code and get details about the sanitisation of the bike.
We understand that some commuters would want a product that is more personal, hence we have introduced long-term rentals. We have seen good demand for this model and have already sold a few thousand subscriptions.
Q. What will be the role of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) in all of this?
Tech plays a more prominent role now that we are resuming operations. Bounce uses patented keyless technology that enables our service to be devoid of any human-to-human contact. Another feature that we have is contact tracing via IoT, which ensures all the users are mapped and usage trails are maintained to help authorities.