Yet the appetite for a window into what might happen is as strong now as it has ever been. People need reassurance, something to cling to. While for many sectors the immediate and medium-term outlook does not look so good, the situation for urban public transport appears positive.

Increasingly the consensus is that the Covid-19 crisis could become a defining moment for urban public transport. Long-term socio-economic trends such as urbanisation, and decarbonisation, which were somewhat steering policy before, came into sharper focus during the crisis. As cities and municipalities embark on the long road to recovery, there seems to be fresh impetus to finally address these issues. For urban rail and mass transit, this might just spark the unprecedented changes that industry proponents have long called for.

This is certainly the view of The Future of Mobility post-Covid-19, a study conducted by the International Association of Public Transport (UTIP) and Arthur D Little. The authors spoke with 70 leaders and top executives from over 30 organisations ranging from transport authorities, mass transit operators, “new mobility” providers and professional bodies, exchanging views on the impact of the crisis, actual and planned responses, and insight on the longer term.

The study, which was published last month, assessed the impact of the crisis on 12 key mobility trends in three areas - global, behavioural, and technology/market. It says that while the crisis has and will continue to have tragic consequences for many people, it has also led to new conditions which can be leveraged to drive innovation in urban public transport.

“The striking result is that with the exception of passenger demand growth, which is expected to slightly decelerate in the coming years, all the other trends will likely be accelerated by the crisis, which, in itself, opens up opportunities to drive change, provided that policy makers and public transport operators and ‘new mobility’ providers are able to seize the opportunity,” the study says.

Seizing this opportunity is a no simple task. While the study notes that some authorities are acting as “progressives” and are firmly committed to the need for change, a minority are considered “non-believers” and do not see the need to radically rethink the system. More than 50% are “stuck in the middle,” recognising the need, but struggling to make it happen.

Public transport must be clean, safe and attractive to use. It must also be more flexible and adaptable to demand, and more financially resilient.

“While it is evident that size and available resources limit the type of actions that can be undertaken, ultimately this is not the determining factor and should not be used as an excuse for lack of action,” the study says. “There is a shared fear that unless changes are made, the majority of authorities, maybe as many as two-thirds, may not be in a position to do what is necessary to drive the required change.”

To make it happen, improvements are needed to customer experience and the resilience of the offer in light of possible rapid fluctuations in demand in the future. Simply put, public transport must be clean, safe and attractive to use. It must also be more flexible and adaptable to demand, and more financially resilient.

The study identifies six “game changers,” including three aimed at city governments and authorities, to frame and enable mobility systems for the post-Covid world:

  • think and act at a system level - develop a unified long-term vision
  • foster innovation through public-private collaborations on innovative technology and business model development, and
  • set up a unified mobility management model, which enhances real-time optimisation of mobility flows at a city and national level.

The three other game changers emphasise rebuilding customer relevance and trust, improving operational resilience by accelerating digitalisation and improving crisis management to better anticipate risks.

Delivering these “game changers” does not require a total rethink. Many of the solutions are already out there and could be replicated and deployed by the 50%. Indeed, the study identifies 70 examples of either new or accelerated actions deployed in the aftermath of the crisis.

Hong Kong provides a suitable case study.

While falls in patronage were significantly less than its peers, Hong Kong’s MTR is experiencing a financial hit as a result of the crisis. Plans for a steady recovery and the use of incentives to bring people back to its trains - a method identified in the study - were hampered last month with a surge in Covid-19 cases and the reintroduction of some social restrictions.

However, MTR is better placed than most to recover. Its much-heralded property development model offers long-term financial security. The model is increasingly in use around the world and this crisis might just lead to even wider adoption.

MTR is also embracing new technologies. CEO Jacob Kam told me that work is underway in areas ranging from infrastructure monitoring, to cleaning and passenger services to trial Artificial Intelligence, robotics and Big Data mining to unlock efficiencies and improve performance.

Industry innovation could also assist MTR and other railways with this process. This month we launch IRJ 2020 Innovations Showcase, a shop window of products and services from the global supply sector. Our August edition is a track and infrastructure special, with general railway technologies set to follow in September. I invite any interested suppliers with a new and innovative product to take part.

Many of these solutions purport to offer enhanced value for money. In a period of tight budgets and tough investment decisions, their deployment might contribute to improving the sector’s financial resilience, helping it to seize the opportunities now seemingly within touching distance.