Yet another crisis/opportunity to redefine mobility. How could we achieve it this time?
In the midst of a pandemic and the ever-growing concerns about the world in general, we can review the incredible opportunity that is presented to improve mobility substantially. Granted, this doesn’t seem like the time to propose things and look forward and it’s rather a time to isolate ourselves. But I am sure we can make the best of these times to find solutions (also, we are all in our pajamas stuck to screens much more than before, so we might as well stop scrolling the feeds of social media and start proposing solutions).
The characteristics of the crisis and opportunity that is presented to us are the following:
We have known for decades that the way transport policies, systems and services have been defined is… crazy. We have not given priority to the most vulnerable, nor have we assigned proper prices to the most polluting and risky vehicles. Worse, we have repeatedly spent much more money on the wrong things, we have not planned cities in such a way that they can truly reap the benefits of the most sustainable options. Sadly, best practices in transportation are dismissed as “different”, “not like ours” and overall unrealistic. But many have proven that we must use new principles for our cities and transport policies to be more sustainable.
We know that we are in a climate crisis. It’s not necessary to describe this in detail because people know what it is (regardless of whether they think it is a hoax or not). If not, the research is incredibly thorough and detailed: our planet is suffering and we have to act to reduce the mounting probability of an actual catastrophe.
But also about the climate crisis: even if it were a hoax (which is a highly improbable case), it’s not at all a bad idea to change many of our daily patterns of living and movement for the better given the many benefits that it can give us beyond climate. Walking, cycling, using public transport do have a very crucial role in reducing emissions and negative impacts (in environment, health, economy) of the current transportation systems.
As of this very week, the current pandemic of Covid19 has forced most places (and in all probability will end up forcing all of them, regardless of how disconnected and remote they may be) to substantially reduce flows of people internationally but also stay in their homes and not go to their places of work, study, leisure and essentially reduce substantially any activity that is at all replaceable or that can be canceled (resources are already made available for the stay-at-home families). This has generated an unprecedented rise of virtual activity — to be sure, it has not only risen in work-related activities but also in leisure and the use of social media (I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of cat videos have increased exponentially during the past five days).
Given these crises, the opportunities that I see are:
We can understand virtual life: Some predict that the pandemic may shift a lot of work to home. This means reducing unnecessary trips, achieving greater effectiveness with shorter meetings that can be scheduled at any point in time (remember unscheduled phone calls?). We can also identify more clearly:
- trips to other cities that could have been replaced by a few phone calls,
- meetings that could have been replaced by an email,
- emails that could have been replaced by actual work on deliverables.
When assessed more in depth, this could drastically reduce the overall time spent on work and increase productivity. Taking this idea to the extreme, if we really find a good way forward and use virtual life more appropriately, we will really start to implement the 4-day workweek and even reduce unemployment. The risk, however, is that we delay project work by saying that a trip was crucial to achieve its goals, that we start scheduling endless and pointless video calls as an effort to replace the “busy work” of the office that never really got us anywhere. There’s even concrete ideas to achieve this through legislation.
More theoretically to this point: the time-space compression that was presented some decades ago is in itself a beautiful opportunity to redefine our relationship with the physical reality more responsibly.
Increase the use active transport: The bicycle has demonstrated to be a stupendously flexible vehicle that can be used to solve many of the problems that this crisis has made more pressing (it’s also the vehicle of the future). It has already demonstrated its role in other crises: the Fukushima disaster, Hurricane Katrina, even an oil embargo in 1973 that helped redefine Dutch transport policy. Today and during the pandemic, many cities are already seeing the greater demand of cycling. Cities can react by creating dedicated lanes for those vehicles (even impromptu lanes immediately) and increasing their ambition of improved conditions for cycling and smaller, slower vehicles overall. Smarter approaches can go as far as defining new types of infrastructure that have sometimes been called slow lanes.
The newer version of “small and resilient vehicles” may also be the larger category of micromobility that includes scooters and other light, slow, zero-to-low emission vehicles. This can literally pave the way for more flexible and resilient infrastructure that will give greater priority to those modes. And, of course, in places where densities allow for truly short trips, walking will always be the queen of transportation.
A big problem that we face is that public transport use has already been declining (in high income groups and economies this was because disposable income was higher and people can pay for private motorization, in the lower income it has mostly been about increasing use of motorbikes and other seemingly cheaper alternatives). A brilliant, continuously updated analysis of the issue by TUMI is here. My two cents are that, with a crisis like the one we are facing, public transport use is going to decline even more because of fears towards physical proximity to large and changing groups of unknown people. That risk can be addressed by defining the real role for public transport and a better operation (less crowding, better ) which inevitable leads to greater funding. It must be clear that a city without public transport cannot function properly (as much as I love bicycles and promote their use, they are not the only solution given that not everyone can use them). Expecting personal motorized travel to pick up the slack is not just ignorant but also irresponsible. Also, this crisis may help us assess more seriously the relevance of a zero-fare public transport policy.
Crucially, there is a huge debate around freight. It has become evident that online shopping has already become problematic, even before we had a pandemic. Surely, it is becoming a much greater issue if everyone is replacing actual trips to the store, restaurant and others with one-click ordering. Though congestion won’t be a problem (if nobody’s outside), this will exacerbate the labor problems of gig workers, and anyway increase emissions if everything is shipped in cities by trucks. So we should really consider the enhancement of freight distribution with cargo bikes instead of trucks and improving the labor conditions of anyone involved in the myriad of services delivering packages every second.
The larger opportunity is related to cities, work and life in general. We must find a way out of the sprawling city that would seem to be a “solution” to the health crisis that we’re facing (the simple idea behind it being that the best social isolation is done in a McMansion filled with toilet paper and far from everyone) and redefine the relevance of good density to increase livability in the context of health concerns. We can start assessing which are the bullshit jobs and how we can redefine them to become really relevant. And we can really assess the feasibility and relevance of bigger ideas such as a universal basic income. And given that we’re already thinking about large and global questions, there is the even larger concern about whether borders serve a crucial function for the benefit of a country or community.
Oh, and we can start reading more and longer (physical) books. That’s always good.
If above is at least marginally useful, maybe we can find a way forward and, once reflecting upon it, come out of this pandemic with a stronger set of ideas and policies that can really provide increasing benefits to our cities and lives.
I think we can, we should and we will improve transport and cities.
(all photos are mine, most of which are here)