COVID-19 has comprehensively disrupted urban mobility systems. Public transport authorities are running skeleton services, while streets are less congested. In the midst of lockdown conditions, urban mobility systems look unrecognisable. Here, Dr Mike Hodson and Professor Andrew McMeekin reflect on how different areas have responded to the lockdown, and discuss key considerations that will shape post-pandemic transport.
- Lockdown has disrupted both public and private urban mobility systems, which rely on shared usage.
- Cities throughout Europe have seized the opportunity to reform their transport systems, with bike lanes and widening of pavements.
- Policymakers must act to protect public transport while it recovers, prioritising public interest over short-term profit.
Pre-COVID urban mobility
Our work on Greater Manchester’s existing transport system revealed long-standing challenges that are shared by many urban areas: over-dependence on cars, congestion at peak times, a privatised and fragmented public transport system of highly uneven and often very expensive (especially compared to London) provision, air pollution hotspots, unsustainable carbon emissions, and investment on infrastructure that focused on the city centre and strategically prioritised connections within the wider metropolitan area.
However, in the context of devolution, we have seen some progressive changes, including ambitious plans announced for a major new cycling and walking infrastructure and proposals for taking bus provision under municipal regulatory control. These developments were starting to address our call for a focus on the travel needs of all citizens, delivered under new governance arrangements of ‘civic futures’.
New, disruptive digital innovations have also reconfigured urban mobility systems. In pre-COVID transport systems, digital platform technologies – from the ride-hailing platform, Uber, to the mapping platform, Citymapper – were being experimented with by both private investors and via a renewed civic politics.
The challenge for existing forms of urban public transport, and for imagining the future role of digital platforms in urban mobility, is that they are predicated on mass, shared usage. Social distancing and lockdown, in the short-term, fundamentally challenges principles of shared ridership and shared usage and has stimulated a variety of responses.
Urban transport during the lockdown
Despite widespread disruption under lockdown conditions, a range of initiatives in different urban areas have been emerging that are starting to reimagine the fabric of urban transport. At the same time, evidence has been emerging about how empty streets during lockdown led to improved air quality and lower carbon dioxide emissions, renewing public debate about what future low-pollution, low-carbon urban mobility should look like.
It is within this context that cities have introduced new mobility initiatives: Milan has introduced measures to reduce car use and turn over 35km of city streets to cyclists and pedestrians; France has made €20million available for citizens to service bicycles to promote cycling, and Manchester has announced the pedestrianisation of Deansgate, one of its major thoroughfares. Greater engagement through various networks, such as the C40 group, has allowed cities to learn from each other. These networks should be developed to enable further sharing of key lessons.
Platform-based mobility providers have also been adapting, introducing in-vehicle segregation and no-contact deliveries. Also, in a new partnership with the World Economic Forum, German start-up Wunder Mobility has launched #WeAllMove, an open digital platform that connects essential services with mobility providers.
Similar open digital platforms could serve as a model for UK policymakers as lockdown restrictions are eased, but the need for distancing remains.
Some lockdown interventions – eg ‘temporary’ widening of cycle lanes – have been introduced as sticking plasters to cope with current circumstances. But as people start to appreciate and experience them as the new normal, they may become permanent. On the other hand, some interventions, such as Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo’s, plans for a more self-sufficient ‘15-Minute City’, have been much more openly directed towards experimenting for long-term change, with the lockdown seen as an opportunity to create more sustainable and effective mobility systems for the future.
Social distancing has meant the ‘sharing’ envisaged by ride-hailing companies has become problematic. This has created pressure to repurpose digital platforms for an era of social distancing. To do this effectively will require building new relationships between policymakers and platform expertise. This will be needed to develop mobility apps for processes of contact tracing and social distancing, which will likely become fundamental to monitoring and controlling urban movement.
With many nations easing lockdown measures, a key concern is how to get people moving in dense urban areas while maintaining social distancing measures. This risks favouring private cars over public transport. It also poses questions about which of these experimental interventions will solidify, which will be exposed as temporary and what this ultimately means for the organisation of urban transport systems.
The lack of a vaccine means we don’t know when we will be ‘beyond COVID’, and predicting what urban mobility will look like is inevitably even more speculative than regular future gazing.
That said, current responses and interventions give us some clues. The reclaiming of streets for active travel in the absence of cars may become sufficiently popular to persist, especially in city centres. The end of rush hours could be facilitated by collective discussions about more genuinely flexible working patterns. This could involve solidifying home working and staggered commute times.
On the other hand, disruption to public transport, which is not well suited to social distancing, seems likely to continue for some time. In the period before buses, trains and trams return to full-scale operation, private mobility platforms may seize opportunities to fill the vacuum.
Policymakers must robustly protect the public interest over the possibilities for short-term profits for narrow social interests.
How this plays out is likely to be shaped by how the wider political and economic conditions of a post-COVID world shape future urban transport systems. The crisis has required a renewed reliance on a state that intervenes more deeply in the organisation of economic life and in securing the health of its citizens. A key question is whether this more interventionist state will be confined to responding to the immediate crisis before bouncing back to ‘business-as-usual’ or whether we are seeing the foundations of deep institutional and structural change? The answer likely rests on a combination of what the length, depth and scope of the COVID-19 crisis is, including the length of a global economic downturn, and the range of societally feasible political and experimental ideas that are available to draw on.
The fallout from COVID-19 is likely to intensify this political-economic struggle between the private investment opportunities provided by digital platforms in urban centres, and a new civic politics of digitally delivered provision that seeks to use platforms to bolster collective priorities via existing urban transport systems. How they are rebuilt, with which combinations of transport mode and under what arrangements of ownership and control, will shape the sustainability, resilience and effectiveness of future urban mobility systems.