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COVID-19 could forever change how we travel—for better or worse

The good news: we are a resilient species and we’ll get past this devastating COVID-19 pandemic, albeit far from unscathed. The bad news: the implications of climate change are increasing the risks of future pandemics involving both existing and brand-new infectious diseases, so the days of system shock followed by collective amnesia will need to end. The realities of a post-COVID-19 world will pose new challenges to cities and transportation systems in particular—from airlines and light-rail networks to ride-hailing platforms and even micro-mobility services. That’s because, right now, human mobility is a vector for disease, hence the stay-at-home orders. Aviation and mass transit are also all about density, which is the antithesis of social distancing.

But there is an enormous opportunity here: pivoting away from being an unintentional vector toward an intentional set of interconnected systems with superpowers for preventing, detecting, and containing outbreaks. As a futurist at the design firm Teague, which specializes in transportation systems, I believe that achieving this pivot will require radical transformations, with both utopian and dystopian outcomes equally possible. With these divergent outcomes in mind, here are two of the likeliest transformations examined through their best-case and abuse-case scenarios.

TRANSPORTATION BECOMES MORE AUTOMATED THAN EVER

Through a utopian lens, passengers who are increasingly repulsed by unnecessary queues, interactions with strangers, and touching anything would welcome the acceleration of automation across commercial aviation and urban mobility. This shift would be so pervasive that the term “touch point” would even disappear from design literature. Public health officials would do their part by creating “contactless accessibility” scores for systems—ranging from “filthy” to “pure”—that are posted on placards in terminals and stations, making automation rollouts a competitive endeavor. A new era of automation would extend from the basic—the eradication of all remaining doors requiring pushing or pulling—to the more advanced. These might include gesture- and eye-movement-based interactions with payment kiosks and in-flight entertainment screens; robots and drones equipped with UV lights that continuously sanitize surfaces; and artificial intelligences that govern our previously clumsy attempts at everything from bus scheduling and curb usage to security screening and aircraft boarding. Our automated systems of the future would be hyperefficient and compulsively clean.

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