#6: Urban Thinkers' perspective on...COVID-19: A Catalyst for More Sustainable Urban Mobility?

On Friday 17 July, 2020 at 17:00, the EUKN secretariat hosted and moderated a webinar looking into the future of urban mobility in the wake of COVID-19 as part of the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum Urban Thinkers Campus initiative. Global expert speakers from policy, academia and business came together for a highly dynamic discussion covering multiple dimensions of the future of urban transport - from how to facilitate more active, pandemic-friendly modes of transport, to the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement with mobility inequities in the United States, to how to create more sustainable, efficient ways for logistics vehicles to move around the city. This article summarises each speaker’s contribution to the webinar, giving you an insight into the multiple ways we can better plan urban mobility to be greener, fairer and more inclusive in a post-pandemic world.

Dr. Nuno Pinto, Lecturer in Urban Planning and Urban Design at the School of Environment, Education and Development of The University of Manchester, United Kingdom

We are in a pivotal moment of change – but we don’t know the consequences yet. There has been an impressively rapid response from transport planning research and practice, which is a traditionally a very rigid area. For example, we’ve seen European cities responding very quickly to adapt to the circumstances, encouraging active forms of mobility and limiting private vehicle space. We have a big trade-off between health and transport policy that the public is aware of – and they are pushing for more sustainable urban mobility. Although we must note that this happens more in the big cities like Paris.

One possible effect of the pandemic is that policymakers will look to raise awareness among the public about why sustainable mobility transitions matter and involve them in policy, creating more inclusive urban and transport governance systems. This will mean that citizens may gain traction to have more of a say in transport planning in the post-pandemic context. We should push for this and be critical of any policies that are not inclusive.

The pandemic might also have opened the discussion around - and public acceptance of - hard interventions for climate change adaptation/mitigation and we should build on this momentum. As we move out of the pandemic, we need to take care of those who are in need of better mobility options. We need spatial cohesion and balance; the massive investments need to go not just towards the capital cities but also those regions that have historically been left behind. Urban mobility has to be a tool to tackle inequality and to implement transitions going forward: technological, social, energy, and economic.

Prof. Bhargab Maitra, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, India

There is a big imbalance in supply and demand in the context of road transport in urban areas in India. This means that traffic congestion, energy inefficiency, road safety, and poor air quality are common aspects of life in several Indian cities. Reduction in public transport capacity, fear of spreading the virus, less operational viability for public transport operators and an increased acceptance of non-motorised transport are the four major impacts of COVID-19 on urban mobility in India so far. The huge downshifts in demand due to the pandemic have been devastating for public services, including public transport. This is the first time ever that the Indian government responded with subsidies. So, we are faced with challenges due to COVID-19 - but we can also see them as opportunities. We need to focus on four major things for mobility as we move out of this crisis: safe infrastructure and facilities, the right policies and priorities, due consideration to user behaviour and improved awareness among the public.

We still have long way to go when it comes to sustainable urban mobility, so we have to keep working together. We need to think about how to create resilience - as we have seen how the whole system can collapse easily – and invest more in more resilient transport. We also need broader reflection about whether we should actually continue to develop such big cities. 

Harriet Tregoning, Director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, hosted by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, Washington D.C., USA

As in India, public transit has also had a huge downturn in demand in the US and for the first time ever the Federal Government has responded with a big investment injection, which has really given transit operators some breathing room. Socio-economic inequalities (in particular, in the US) have been starkly highlighted during this crisis and urban mobility sits at the nexus of all these issues. African American households are five times more likely to be carless in the US and so much of our country has been arranged in such a way that many jobs – especially low-income, frontline service work - are impossible without a car. A lot of people of colour and people from low-income backgrounds will simply lose their jobs or be unable to get new ones, unless we take tremendous steps to increase access to public transit and implement significant land-use changes, which some cities are beginning to do. It’s not going to be adequate to go back to what we had before. If we don’t make urban mobility more accessible, and provide the right modes to the right communities, we will perpetuate 400 years of inequality and unfortunate history. I’m hoping that this prolonged and sustained conversation about race-relations that we’re having alongside the COVID-19 discussion and concerns about the economy will lead to better outcomes. 

When it comes to micro-mobility, cities have to look at whether it makes sense for them. The land use pattern and the length off trips in a city will determine whether micro mobility makes sense or not. One lesson for cities is that if they want to have options like micro mobility, they have to provide the right infrastructure to make it safe. 

The idea that transportation should connect people to the places they need to go is something that we are only just beginning to consider in transport policy. At the moment, we only measure the speed of vehicles; so, we might be undergoing a seismic change in how we see public transit, and this could have positive effects on policy. 

Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General, Polis Network, Brussels, Belgium

Peer to peer exchange is really important going forward. There were already existing platforms to bring people together – like the urban agenda partnerships – but we need to push harder for collaboration across all levels. Indeed, cooperation between different level of government - local, city level, national and European – is instrumental to a secure green recovery. If we don’t join forces with the private sector as well, we will be in a worse position going forward. If we want to recover from this crisis, we cannot do it on our own. 

We also need to look at where we put economic support – so that we don’t only look at the recovery of the aviation and car sectors but also other sectors, particularly the green ones. This moment should be an opportunity to also tackle the other crises we have long faced: road safety, air pollution, climate change. On other words, we need to put our money where our mouth is.

When it comes to transport innovation, like MaaS, we need to make sure that the right modes of transport are prioritised - not the most profitable but the most sustainable. After all, offering people a beautiful app that seamlessly integrates all transport won’t make them automatically sustainable. We need carrots and sticks to be combined.

 

Dr. Mona Jabbari, Researcher at the Centro do Território, Ambiente e Construção, University of Minho, Portugal

When the COVID-19 crisis happened, we faced a new reality: increasing numbers of people are walking around the city and pedestrians require more space to safely physically distance. This crisis will also undoubtedly challenge public transport, the sustainable backbone of our urban mobility ecosystem. This situation, therefore, teaches us valuable lessons about what we need. It’s time to rethink urban planning and ground it in active forms of mobility – walking and cycling. This means, in some cases, that we need to redesign the urban transport system and offer sufficient infrastructure for walking and cycling. Rapid local urban mobility transitions have happened already - for example, widening walking and cycling lanes in some cities. But we need to also consider mid and long-term actions based on ‘citizen-centric’ planning in order to create a truly people-friendly city. 

We have to facilitate more cooperation among actors and decision-makers from transport-related sectors, from the district to the national level. Activities with macro-mobility relevance for the local and regional levels should be coordinated and also undertaken with an understanding of the mobility impacts on local neighbourhoods. New transport planning should be characterized by cooperation, goal-orientation, and integration of all types of mobility (including sharing and public services such as micro-mobility and public transport). Pedestrian network planning can be so useful for the city to integrate all the systems.

We should also be careful and critical of new technological innovation – we need to retain the spatial aspect of planning and remember that, beyond IT platforms, if we want micro-mobility modes in the city, we have to plan and design urban spaces to accommodate them. 

Rashi Agarwal, co-founder and CBO at Mobycy, Gurgaon, Haryana, India

Public life has come to a halt in a totally unexpected way. Micro and shared mobility has been very impacted. People thought these options would be the future, but shared cars, for example, has gone down a lot due to coronavirus and social distancing. Shared individual mobility options like long-rental bikes could really grow, though, and be a good alternative to shared vehicles like cars. The demand is still there for a personal yet shared option – like long-term bikes and ebikes – but the government also needs to provide infrastructure, like cycle parking, charging stations and cycle lanes. 

Dr. Boyd Cohen, Co-founder of IoMob, Barcelona, Spain

We've had an over-reliance in too many regions of the world on cars and too much focus on developing urban infrastructure around the car. Covid-19 has made us think about how to focus cities around people instead. Now, we need to remove parking spaces and create more safe spaces for people to walk, bike and scoot around cities (dedicate lanes to micro and active mobility modes) and interconnect them with good public transport stems so that cars are not attractive. 

In the post-COVID future, we are gonna see seamlessly integrated mobility in open platforms. This means an open mobility marketplace where any mobility should be legally required to expose their service to an open API. The next step of this evolution is about adding in first and last-mile logistics, where you can optimise the movement of goods and people in an efficient way and create true sustainable urban mobility. However, it should be noted that in order for MaaS to come about, we need to tackle digital accessibility and literacy: there’s an assumption that everyone has access to smartphones, but they don’t – and that’s a big barrier to MaaS.