How lockdowns are allowing us to revolutionise urban mobility

May 15, 2020

Today, we kick off a series of three blog posts in collaboration with our friends at the Berlin-based think tank dGen. The series will elevate topics related to Covid-19, how it has affected mobility and what learnings we can take from this.

The articles are co-authored by Christoph Egels, Public Policy Manager DACH at Voi, and Jake Stott, Founder of dGen.

dGen is an independent non-profit research institute focusing on how emerging technology can contribute to a decentralised future in Europe and what this might mean for people, society, private entities, and the public sector over the coming decades. We work with researchers and strategic partners to produce high-quality research reports about how emerging technologies can impact and shape existing industries. Read more of dGen’s blog posts here.

Shut down of traffic – no one is moving anymore

When news of Coronavirus began to spread, the most shocking images were often completely empty streets or normally packed tram cars with only one or two passengers. But, while in early March, those of us not in the cities hit hardest waited to see if these dystopian images could really be our future, life carried on as normal. This all changed in a matter of days, when US President Trump issued a sudden travel ban against non-essential travel from the EU. This travel ban was the precursor to a slew of individual lockdowns around Europe that left many confined to their homes. So, it’s no surprise that by the end of March, only five European countries hadn’t imposed either localised or national lockdowns. These included Sweden, Iceland, Belarus, Latvia, and Hungary, according to the BBC. Now, in May, Sweden and Belarus remain the only two countries not to have imposed lockdowns.

While Europe hasn’t had a unified approach to coronavirus lockdowns, many of these restrictions left only essential businesses open, and had many workers adjusting to home-office or being unable to work entirely. The arrival of May has seen the slackening of some of these restrictions. However, recommendations remain in place, most meant to keep residents at least 1,5 meters apart. For European hubs, this means that public transit systems cannot return to capacity. Individual mobility remains an essential step in slowing the spread of infection.

But what did this mean for other forms of mobility?

Recommendations to avoid crowded public transit were among the first to be issued, and the number of commuters on buses and subways decreased heavily; some people returned to old habits of taking privately owned cars, but others remained strongly committed to the sharing economy, making the shorter commutes completely on e-scooters or by bikes.

However, as lockdowns intensified, these early decisions were quickly followed by a drastic and immediate cut; no one was moving anymore.

Due to the heavy measures taken by Governments in Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland, need for transportation seemed to be almost entirely cut. Even in Sweden, where distancing measures have largely not been legally instated, urban transportation went down. Commuter numbers dropped almost completely before citizens adjusted to the situation and slowly started moving again.

All of this was a staggering hit to micromobility. Movement was cut off just when micromobility was ready to hit the streets again with force, in the first rays of sunlight.

Micromobility operators had to adjust city by city – pulling in fleets or continuing to be active depending on the needs of each city and its inhabitants, but also taking into consideration their own economic interests. While people adjusted to new rules and safety measures, micromobility operators worked to adjust with them, helping to fill in gaps and meet travel demands as people continued to avoid mass public transportation. And in this, many micromobility providers were also key in offering their services to those most in need: medical staff, food delivery drivers or supermarket staff.

But, even now, with restrictions beginning to ease, in most cities across Europe, both people and micromobility have not fully returned to the streets; people are still waiting for the news that they can move in a safe manner. And operators are waiting for the right moment to hit the streets again and a population to serve. Now more than ever is when people need a larger selection of safe urban transportation, one that also offers environmental benefits and allows them to keep distance from each other.

Will the mobility effects of Covid-19 allow a return of private cars or fast track a sustainable modal shift?

While people are still holding their breath, there is an unprecedented potential to change transport behaviour before old habits return. Taking this chance requires bold actions, though, by people, micromobility operators, public transport operators, cities and national governments.

While preserving lives has to be at the top of everyone’s list, there are many other areas of our lives that can either improve or regress in the coming weeks. And now, this crisis can be the impetus for very rapid change.

Individual and government choices will determine whether this is successful rather than a return to normal, or worse, to the past, in a carbon emissions filled, car-driven society.

In the light of this, this situation, which started out as possibly one of the hardest hits towards mobility in recent history, could also be the biggest opportunity for micromobility to thrive. Individual and government choices will determine whether this is successful rather than a return to normal, or worse, to the past, in a carbon emissions filled, car-driven society.

Individual mobility recommendations have already pushed people who usually commute via public transport back to taking their own car to get to work every day or go grocery shopping, especially in car-focused countries like Germany. According to one ADAC survey on mobility in the Corona crisis, 15% of those surveyed use their cars more frequently than before and 16% plan to use their cars more frequently again in the future. These trends will lead to more pollution and congestion in city centres.

Additionally, automotive associations are already demanding subsidies to allow them to come back strong after the crisis. But these are just temporary fixes. Taxes on CO2 emissions and individual movements away from car ownership have already put a strain on this industry. Unless they are able to pivot to more sustainable products, government subsidies seem like a poor band-aid for a long-term problem. Another temporary fix for this old industry will only slow progress towards a cleaner future. At this time of rapid change, governmental choices will impact the German Verkehrswende. In order to remain in line with national and global climate plans and the EU’s Green deal, local and national governments need to stay on track with the already approved plans and implement even more proactive measures that help people of all societal groups make smart and sustainable transport choices. Looking at different cities across the globe, the right answer seems clear: governments at all levels need to take responsibility and come to decisions for more sustainable transport options and not let this window of opportunity go by.

The decreased emissions while people travel less can be a vision for the future to build on. But while the cleaner air in our cities should provide a goal to strive for, individuals, governments and mobility providers need to come together to formulate a plan for how to preserve cleaner air when we begin to see an uptick in travel. All of this is to say that this terrible crisis can be the impetus to establish ways to keep cities free from the noise, pollution and congestion that come with car-dependent travel.

This is especially important, as the loss of widespread mass public transportation will displace millions of users – Berlin’s public transit provider, the BVG, reported serving 1 billion people in 2017, and the Metro and RER in Paris claim to transport 1.8 billion passengers annually. But, in order to make sure that cars do not return with force to fill the gaps left by mass public transportation, people need to be presented with a greater variety of sustainable urban mobility, options that allow for social distancing. Some cities have been fast and proactive in these changes.

Image: Frank Masurat, via QUIMBY, CC0

From “emergency” bike lanes to new city landscapes

Without widely available and safe public transportation, bikes and e-scooters have been the most accessible travel option for many. The bike- and e-scooter-shares make these options widely available, especially with many cities off-setting the cost.

However, most cities are finding that they do not have the infrastructure to accommodate so many new individual micromobility users, especially with increased distancing demands. To solve this, many city governments have turned to widened bike-lanes. These widened bike lanes make it possible for commuters to maintain the recommended distance of 1,5m, even while passing, and can improve safety for new users, unaccustomed to close proximity to vehicles.

Bogotá was among the first cities to announce the new “emergency” bike lanes, in a move called “tactical urbanism”, which refers to rapid and often temporary improvements to city planning. A slew of cities have since followed suit, including Berlin, Budapest, and Milan, all of which have either announced new cycle routes or widened their cycling lanes.

Reduced car traffic allowed this revamp to be nearly seamless, with many of these lanes being marked off overnight. However, some cities, like London, paused before taking any action. Early in the emergency bike lane movement, London’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner, Will Norman, claimed that widened cycle lanes would not improve safety due to complex traffic flow.

In response to this, Cycling UK’s policy director, Roger Geffen pointed out to the Guardian that the pop-up cycle lanes ‘provides a good experience to new commuters, while claiming the kerb space when it’s not under pressure and not as disruptive to make changes’.

And, under pressure to open up operations and provide people with individual and distanced transportation, the UK Transportation Secretary, Grant Shapps, announced a £250M package to boost cycling and walking infrastructure. This plan not only includes “emergency” bike lanes, but also widened sidewalks, cyclist-only streets, and trialing the use of e-scooters. These changes are slated to take place first in Birmingham and Coventry, very welcomed by the e-scooter operators.

However, this leads to the question of whether or not these “temporary” emergency measures could be the precursor to more permanent changes in urban development?

At least for London, the fast and “tactical” moves that other cities took needed more consideration, and came with plans for longevity. And, with no clear end to social distancing in sight, Geffen’s proposal to take advantage of the emptied streets to reshape the city for individual micromobility seems to be the best step forward.

Travel in a private car meets Coronovirus recommendations, but individual micromobility, if given the priority and space that has been allotted to cars, could provide the same safety with far less space requirements and carbon dioxide emissions.

With normal functions beginning to resume, how each city is able to accommodate residents and keep infection rates low will likely become the model for others. In this, cities that have already taken the plunge into improved and widened bike lanes may find themselves ahead as commuters come out of lockdown. In all of this, a jump in individual car use is a serious concern. Travel in a private car meets Coronovirus recommendations, but individual micromobility, if given the priority and space that has been allotted to cars, could provide the same safety with far less space requirements and carbon dioxide emissions.

In order to counter a surge in car use, steps need to be taken, both quickly, as Bogotá has, and with an eye to the future, as London’s slower, but more lasting plans call for. And, while the UK hesitated before acting, the longevity of their plan is precisely what is necessary for a successful fight against the spread of Coronavirus that also has the potential to drive forward carbon dioxide emission goals.

A strong future for green transportation

To further this movement, many countries are collaborating with their mobility providers. The French ministry of transportation is working on a plan with all mobility operators on how to keep safe distances while citizens begin moving again. And, in Germany, the newly established bike lanes come with the first micromobility parking hubs in the city of Erlangen. These designated e-scooters parking spots remove them from sidewalks, helping to reduce clutter. All of this will smooth the relaunch of micromobility in these cities, making them an integrated service.

And, with cities prompted into working with mobility operators, there is the possibility of shared micromobility, privately driven bicycles, cars and public transport to coexist in an organised and well-designed manner. In cities that have increased their cycling lanes, public space is now more equally divided between each mode of transportation, providing much greater ease and access for commuters utilizing individual micromobility.

However, in this change, cities and governments are not the only responsible parties. It is also time for the operators to set even higher and more ambitious standards for themselves than have been seen in the last two years. With better operations and infrastructure, micromobility providers can step up and prove that e-scooter- and bike-shares can serve public transportation needs, not only in the midst of a crisis, but even in post-Corona times.

When looking back at 2020, we hope that cities used this brief window of opportunity to transform urban transportation and move away from a car centered society.

Strong public transport collaborations to serve the first and last mile will be key in transportation relaunches across Europe. These partnerships will also need to serve suburban areas, where there is real need for the last mile solutions. Looking across Europe at how the first up-coming government support packages for public transport operators, such as the one Sweden announced (300M €), could be invested in just cutting losses made during lockdown or could be invested in preparing their systems for the future by setting up intermodal apps, including micromobility options. This could strengthen the future urban mobility and take intermodal transportation to a next level.

With reduced parking spaces in cities as they make room for more micromobility, serving suburban areas will become increasingly important, as people search for alternative solutions. Multimodal travel has the opportunity to gain greater traction, and city services can be extended, to provide greener options to all commuters.

Travel patterns during COVID-19 in the Nordics already show the first signs of such behaviour; demand for micromobility rideshares in the outskirts of Stockholm is rising, and users in Oslo are on average going for longer rides than ever before, making use of the already existing biking infrastructure.

Now, looking ahead to the next few weeks, countries and cities are incrementally opening up, and people need to move again. Critical social distancing means that mass public transportation is still not recommended. But, by having e-scooters and bikes out in the streets again, greener models than ever before and improved infrastructure, the chance of moving cities in a more sustainable future is greater than ever.

When looking back at 2020, we hope that this was the year when we learned from the positive environmental effects of decreased traffic, and that cities used this brief window of opportunity to transform urban transportation and move away from a car centered society. The year when we started shaping cities made for living – free from noise, pollution and congestion! 

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