Are grey fleets the downfall of mobility?

The global pandemic struck just when Mobility concepts were gaining traction. With smarter, more flexible ways for commuters and businesses to interact with mass, micro, and active transportation options are Mobility solutions still relevant and viable?

E-scooters and eBikes were on the cusp of solving that first/last mile challenge of how you get from your house to the train station or from the bus stop to the office.

Unified payment systems were heralding a new era of journeying convenience by allowing us to choose from multiple transport options and pay through a single online gateway.

Encouraging signs were evident that businesses were willing to consider transport options beyond vehicles, embracing fleet management tools that offered alternatives, such as public transport, bikes, e-scooters, and even walking.

Dead zones in metropolitan transport maps showed signs of being populated by micro and shared transport options that whisked suburban residents to their nearest mass transit station.

Then COVID-19 happened…

Mobility and COVID-19

Initially it was about hunkering down at home, working from your kitchen table and seldom venturing out. Then necessity forced some of us outside, where we found a degree of comfort by returning to our cars and staying away from the possibly infectious environments of buses and trains.

In this situation, the Grey Fleet, where private vehicles are used to complete business tasks found favour, as employees shied away from using public transport on workdays and embraced the convenience of the car in the driveway.

Another factor in heightened Grey Fleet activity is the prevalence among businesses of centralised and shared fleets. In the drive for increased efficiency, the traditional model of allocating a vehicle to a single user has given way to a strategy of shared vehicles. This has undoubtedly improved utilisation, but it’s questionable whether a shared, centralised fleet of vehicles was the appropriate solution in a pandemic environment, with employees working from home and concerns about shared vehicles becoming vectors for virus transference.

A confluence of factors, including reluctance to go back to public transport, centralised business fleets that are now remote from home workers, and the attraction of roads with less traffic has seemingly increased the attractions of the Grey Fleet and stopped progress towards broadscale Mobility adoption.

At first glance, international studies appear to support this conjecture. They show that people who own a car are now relying on it more, but that’s not the whole story. In those same cities, people who never had a car and previously relied on public transport are now embracing cycling or walking.

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly set back mass transit plans in our cities, with public transit use falling 70-90% in major cities across the world, it has also opened up opportunities for change that urban planners and transport providers can capitalise on. In Bogota, Columbia they’ve added 76 kilometres of cycle lanes to encourage social distancing. New York City has closed several streets to traffic to enable the same, and Oakland in California has closed 119 kilometres of streets to vehicles, allowing pedestrians and cyclist to remain two metres apart.

If initiatives like these translated into sustainable change, we would have the transport networks in place to encourage ongoing micro-mobility use, and to provide the car-free routes that facilitate bringing back trams or inaugurating light-rail. Seen like this, COVID-19 is an opportunity for civic leaders to give Mobility a push.

On the business front too, there are signs that opportunity could spring from adversity. The proliferation of micro-mobility suppliers had led to instances of gross oversupply in e-scooters and bikes, with little or no strategy to providing comprehensive availability. The focus on high-volume locations in the city centres resulted in high concentrations of e-scooters in these areas, with virtually nothing to help with first mile challenges in the suburbs. COVID-19’s shrinking of the consumer base may lead to the M&A activity that brings scale to the micro-mobility offering and maturity to deployment strategies. Only then will micro-mobility fulfil its role in a broad and fully inclusive Mobility offering.

When the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns swept the globe many of us were pleasantly surprised at the dramatic improvements in air quality our cities experienced. We generally told ourselves to appreciate clean air and clear views while they were there, because a return of vehicle pollution was inevitable.

Now, there’s a growing awareness that the benefits of fewer vehicles could be a long-term outcome of the pandemic. Grey Fleets could be the last gasp of private vehicle ownership, or maybe they are an example of how private and business vehicle use could merge into a single entity. When the specialist requirements of utilities and service companies are removed, the global vehicle fleet is pretty much made up of vehicles that suit private and business use.

Imagine how many vehicles we could remove from our streets if you didn’t have to own one to make use of one? Just book that saloon that’s sitting idle in a company car park all weekend.

That’s a win, win result; for the organisations that want to reduce fleet costs, people who want cars without the burdens of ownership and the cities that want to give streets back to people.

Thought should also be given to expanding the Grey Fleet, to encompass Micromobility options like bikes and e-scooters. There are programmes in the Netherlands and the UK where government and some enlightened employers are actively promoting bike ownership to get people out of cars. Building on this idea, by encouraging employees to use their company sponsored bikes to get to meetings is an obvious solution in locations where the distances to be travelled are not so great.

With thinking like this, the Grey Fleet, looks more like the ‘green’ fleet envisaged by Mobility advocates.

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