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Cities are using public transportation to deliver essentials during the COVID-19 pandemic

  •   3 min read

Using routing technology usually reserved for on-demand microtransit, cities are delivering emergency relief like medicine and meals as more residents shelter in place.

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As cities across the globe do everything in their power to support their communities, one problem is less about pleading with people to self-quarantine, and more about what happens when they actually do.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are closed or limiting hours, and people are staying home to heed social distancing guidelines. And yet, those same people at home still need essential goods such as medicine and food, causing a massive spike in the need for delivery infrastructure.

The Australian Post says it’s seeing a 200 percent increase in shipping demand compared this time last year. Amazon announced plans to hire a whopping 100,000 new employees to keep up with increased demand, and even Domino’s Pizza says it plans to hire an additional 10,000 workers to support delivery operations.

While pizza deliveries aren’t necessarily “essential,” the trend points to an issue facing many cities and companies, especially small businesses who can’t afford to hire hundreds of delivery workers. There simply aren’t enough drivers to support the rapidly increasing volume of deliveries, especially as delivery workers are one of the groups most at-risk of catching the coronavirus.

Thankfully, some city leaders are stepping up to help. One way cities are supporting their communities is by thinking through how to help deliver essential goods more reliably, and more efficiently. Beyond transporting essential service workers, city leaders and transit agencies are now tasked with an entirely new challenge: how do you get your residents their emergency and essential goods?

Searching for delivery resources in existing transportation options

Although cities and transit authorities are experiencing fewer drivers and people to help than ever before (as people react and stay home in response to the COVID-19 outbreak), many are beginning to rethink how they can use their existing resources to plug the gaps in their delivery needs.

The island nation Malta is one such example. It quickly adapted its transportation resources and launched a new on-demand service to meet the needs of local residents. Since July 2019, Malta has been using Via’s technology to power shared on-demand public transportation. But as concerns over the spread of the coronavirus grew, officials adapted their service to exclusively provide private rides for essential trips in order to address safety concerns.

Shortly thereafter, they broadened their approach, using the same fleet of vehicles and drivers to provide necessary deliveries. This allows customers to “book” deliveries of food or medical supplies and track their deliveries in real-time to their door. All the while, the pooling technology allows deliveries to be aggregated into a single vehicle so that fewer drivers can help even more people get the items they need. By pooling goods together, Malta has adapted the concept of ridesharing to include an essential service to its community – getting more necessary goods to more people in need, as efficiently as possible. 

More cities are following suit. 

Malta is not alone in adapting its transportation infrastructure to service essential deliveries.

Take Washington, D.C. in the United States. With schools closed during COVID-19, many students who previously relied on them for their weekday meals are facing food insecurity. As a result, Genuine Foods, a high-volume food service provider in the U.S., started an on-demand emergency meal kit delivery service for Washington D.C. students, using Via’s technology and operational support to deliver meals across the district.

“As the coronavirus outbreak closed schools, we set up ‘Grab and Go’ stations to serve a week’s worth of meals to students, but quickly realized that we needed to adapt immediately to support the sharp increase in need for emergency meals in just the D.C. area alone,” said Jeff Mills, CEO of Genuine Foods. “Through our partnership with Via, we were able to rapidly pivot to a focus on home delivery powered by technology, which enables us to feed even more students in need, and to have the flexibility to react to the ongoing crisis in real time.”

Medical and food deliveries are essential for seniors and people most at risk, and allowing efficient deliveries keeps them safe at home. Medical and grocery deliveries remove one more worry on their minds, and adapting transportation resources to serve those needs is one way that cities are helping solve for essential services during the pandemic.

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