The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the transport sector in Southeast Asia to a screeching halt. However, it has accelerated the digitisation process of urban mobility. It has been observed by countries in the region that embracing disruptive technologies is one of the most promising avenues to weather the crisis and lay the foundation for more sustainable urban transport.

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on people’s mobility patterns which has led to disruptions in urban transport services. In such a scenario digital innovation has made it much easier to collect and analyse real-time data, providing an effective way for governments to identify and quantify disruptions.

Demand for public transport will be slow to recover in the region due to which it is essential that transit agencies provide reliable information on their services as part of rebuilding passengers’ trust in the safety of their system. In this fast evolving context, digital solutions can go a long way in centralising and communicating relevant and, up-to-date transit information to the public – whether it be service changes, real-time arrivals, or details on the cleaning protocols implemented by operators. Some transit systems in the region are even letting users monitor occupancy levels on their vehicles so they can determine whether the bus or train they are about to board will allow for social distancing.

Leveraging new mobility solutions

New mobility systems such as ride-hailing have responded to the crisis as well, providing free or discounted transport for essential workers and healthcare providers, as well as facilitating the delivery of food and other essential supplies. Likewise, micro mobility services like bike share or electric scooters have expanded to serve vulnerable locations.

The benefits of these newer solutions can be maximised by integrating them into a comprehensive transport ecosystem that would let users navigate seamlessly across mass transit, shared mobility platforms, and micro mobility. This approach, commonly dubbed “mobility-as-a-service” (MaaS), is already helping urban residents in the region get around safely during the pandemic. As an example, mobility aggregator apps enable users to plan journeys with a wide variety of transport modes, and to prioritise routes that fit social distancing requirements.

Recent trends and developments

The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced a massive digital adoption spurt, with more than one in three digital services consumers being new to the service and more than 90 per cent intending to continue post the pandemic, according to research by Bain, Google and Temasek based on Kantar data covering Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. In 2020, 40 million new internet users were added, bringing the total to 400 million users. Currently, 70 per cent of the region is online. The research also found that Southeast Asians spent on average an hour more a day on the internet during Covid-19-imposed lockdowns. The Internet sector provided access to essential goods, healthcare, education, transport and entertainment while helping businesses keep the lights on.

With eight out of 10 Southeast Asians viewing technology as very helpful during the pandemic, it has become an indispensable part of people’s daily lives. The internet economy remains resilient at $100 billion gross merchandise value, even with the global slowdown. As consumers and the transport sector come online, and with a supportive ecosystem and regulatory environment, the predicted 2025 total stands strong at over $300 billion, indicating growth despite a challenging environment.

The big hotspots include Vietnam and Indonesia. The big shift in consumer behaviour to digital services has massive implications both for traditional companies venturing into the digital realm and digital-native companies. Education and transport benefited most from the influx of new digital consumers.

Thailand is forging ahead with its plans to become a developed digital hub in the Southeast Asian region. As one of the regional economies on the path towards Industrial Revolution 4.0 maturity, Thailand is restructuring itself into a value-based, innovation-driven economy by looking towards future economic trends – and as part of the Thailand 4.0 road map, one of those trends is to modernise urban centres in the country into smart, sustainable cities.

The development of smart blocks in Thailand is already under way in six out of 13 cities, namely, Chiang Mai, Nakhon Sawan, Udon City, Khon Kaen, Rayong City, and Patong City. These experimental zones will utilise all-in-one “smart poles” embedded with internet of things (IoT) sensors to gather traffic data, to make designated areas more pedestrian-friendly, followed by cyclists, public transport users, and private car users. One of the key features of the smart city vision is improving connectivity among devices, places, and transportation infrastructure. In order to enable such communication to take place, reliable baseline technology like sensors, cloud computing, and reliable internet connections are required – which Thailand is rapidly exploring as part of its Thailand 4.0 digitisation push.

The population growth in Malaysia is making roads heavily congested in highly dense urban cities like Kuala Lumpur, where the majority of people choose to travel by car since the onset of the pandemic. In such a scenario, digitalisation can have a profound impact on transportation services and may provide an avenue to relieve congestion. Utilising and integrating multiple technologies can ease vehicle-to-vehicle information coordination, and improve operational efficiency and passenger satisfaction.

Since the introduction of smart cities initiatives as part of the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-20), Malaysia has started deploying an intelligent IoT network in cities like Kuala Lumpur, Iskandar, Selangor, and Putrajaya. These projects incorporated IoT, cloud computing, big data analytics, and spatial geographic information integration in their smart city planning, construction, management and services. Further, with smart mobility being a key aspect of its smart city vision, Malaysia launched its Intelligent Transport System Blueprint 2017-2022 to upgrade its current transportation system, with big data analytics forming the core of the system.

Governments in the region are also expected to leverage and reap the benefits of the emerging digital economy through policies and reforms to improve digital infrastructure and connectivity in the transport sector. These steps include promoting fair competition and improving ease of doing business processes, as well as enhancing labor security and social protection measures to align with digital jobs.

The road ahead

Restoring public transport services in the region will take a huge degree of persistence; however, the ambition in the region shouldnot just be a return to the status quo. As Southeast Asia grapples with the pandemic, cities have a window of opportunity to rethink the future of urban transport and tackle issues that were plaguing the sector long before the onset of the pandemic, from congestion to affordability and efficiency. This is where technology comes in as by combining digital solutions, urban transport professionals everywhere can tackle the immediate impacts of the crisis, win passengers back, and pave the way for a more sustainable transport future.