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Home / Analysis / Covid-19: Changing what it means to travel safely | Analysis

Covid-19: Changing what it means to travel safely | Analysis

The road ahead requires India to invest in contactless travel, while ensuring social distancing. There is a way

analysis Updated: Jun 30, 2020 20:08 IST
Jay Walder
Jay Walder
One of the first things we need to grapple with is figuring out how transportation should deal with future pandemics, in addition to running efficiently in normal circumstances
One of the first things we need to grapple with is figuring out how transportation should deal with future pandemics, in addition to running efficiently in normal circumstances(REUTERS)

Our ability to move has shaped the world, and it will dictate the future of the human race. But as the world struggles through an unprecedented lockdown, it faces a scary, new question: How will cities safely move billions of people after a pandemic?

Before Covid-19, we took mobility for granted. On an average day, five million travelled by the Delhi Metro, and over 10 million by Delhi’s public buses. The Indian Railways carried over 24 million, and Mumbai’s buses over 30 million passengers a day. A million passengers travelled through India’s airports every day.

Today, those numbers are down sharply. As India thinks about how to reopen safely, the question will be how will it move millions, while keeping people safe. Can you have social distancing during rush hour on a Mumbai local train? In 2020, will we be torn between environment-friendly, efficient mass transit and fuel-guzzling personal transport?

It’s heartening to see that India’s pioneering technology services industry has embraced working from home. However, for many, personal transport or working from home is not an option. Mass transit must find solutions to get back up and running while slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The New York City Transit, responsible for the city’s buses and subway, is testing social distancing markers at stations, as well as “rides by reservation”. The city’s subway authorities disinfect each train every night. The Paris, London and Singapore Transit authorities are making face masks mandatory for riders, installing thermal scanners, and limiting the number of seats available on trains. In China, robots are disinfecting trains and stations, and providing hand sanitisers to passengers. Smart-card readers with thermal scanners can even spot feverish passengers.

My prediction is that many governments and transit companies will rely more on apps and contactless travel — a trend that was already taking hold, and will be catalysed by the crisis.

Airlines and long-distance travel options also aim to contain the spread by measures such as blocking the middle seats, thermal scanning for passengers, sanitisation upgrades, inter-seat separators, and readjusting the air-conditioning systems every three-to-four minutes.

These solutions are useful, but there is an opportunity for more. After spending my entire career in transportation, and now as CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, I believe it is critical that we collectively and proactively invest in infrastructure that will serve us in the next century. Let’s encourage investment that not only helps us rebuild, but evolve. This crisis is upon us and we need to provide a solution that moves the masses in a safe way, and helps to bolster the economy for the people of the region.

One of the first things we need to grapple with is figuring out how transportation should deal with future pandemics, in addition to running efficiently in normal circumstances.

As it turns out, the hyperloop’s basic design and technology make it ideally suited for social distancing, should the need arise. That’s because it delivers passengers with a fleet of pods, with an average of 28 seats per pod, that are guided by a command-and-control system that balances supply and demand. In “distancing operation” mode, where social distancing mandates the passenger density to be, say, reduced to half, the number of pods in the system can increase to move more people through the system safely. This can all happen while not stopping the system. Unlike rail, the pods are controlled by an artificial-intelligence-powered automation system, allowing them to travel within seconds of each other (like cars on a highway), safely.

The system is demand-responsive. The hyperloop can anticipate and control ridership in emergencies or special situations. You don’t have to “trust” passengers to be physically distant, as in subways, for example; you can enforce a certain number of empty seats on each pod or give priority to emergency and health care workers.

Even in “normal” operations, we still want to take precautions and provide a seamless customer experience. The hyperloop is designed to have touchless ticketing with minimum human exposure, advanced filtration, and regular cleaning. The system also enables a flexible station design, allowing decentralisation and less crowding at the stations since multiple smaller pods leave within minutes vs a larger train with multiple cars.

Safety is at the forefront of our minds right now, but it is critical that we think about the big picture. We must still look to fight congestion and the climate crisis. Take the Mumbai-Pune corridor, where we hope to invest in and build the world’s first commercial hyperloop system, which will shrink a 3.5 hour trip to less than 30 minutes, with zero direct emissions. It has the capacity to move over 200 million passengers annually to meet the demand of this route. We feel that this private investment into Maharashtra will help support the people with new opportunities for growth. We hope that we can work together to make it happen in the near future. We are ready.

I still believe our ability to move will dictate the future of the human race. Our ability to move billions safely in a pandemic will help decide its present, and its near future. The tail of this pandemic is going to be a long one, and mass transit and transportation around the world has to adapt, so that passengers are safe and can continue with their lives.

Jay Walder is CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, which plans to build the world’s first hyperloop system to connect Mumbai and Pune. He was CEO of Hong Kong’s transit company MTR Corporation, chairman and CEO of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and managing director for finance and planning at Transport for London
The views expressed are personal
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