The status-quo of urban mobility

Philipp Riegebauer
Mar 24 · 8 min read

Impact of Covid-19 on mobility planning and measures to adapt urban mobility systems

This article describes the impact of Covid-19 according to a survey conducted for EIT Urban Mobility in 14 European cities on the implementation status of mobility solutions and the related literature.

It focuses on the question “Which measures have you implemented in your city in the last months?” The public sector measures are analysed to gain insight into possible solutions and to show current and future perspectives of urban mobility.

The Covid-19 virus is creating a health and economic crisis. One of the most important aspects of the contagious quality of the virus is personal contact, which is very much present in the mobility patterns of urban dwellers. Therefore, urban mobility systems are believed to be among the most affected by the pandemic crisis, along with international travel. Covid-19 and the social distancing measures have thus fundamentally influenced the forces that are shaping cities. The pandemic has exponentially increased negative agglomeration effects (contagion) and made it difficult to exploit positive agglomeration effects (production and urban amenities). The pandemic has created many problems that need to be solved.

To get a first-hand impression of the impact of the pandemic in the urban environment, a group of 14 cities were surveyed and interviewed. While the survey shows a great diversity of European cities, the sample is too small to be used for statistical analysis. Furthermore, the survey was conducted at a time when the understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on different urban functions and systems was still in its early stages. Therefore, the results should be seen as a snapshot of the situation. Nevertheless, they provide a general picture, allowing for a qualitative discussion on the impact of the pandemic on urban mobility systems.

The pandemic is not only a health crisis but also an economic crisis. Investment in future mobility has declined in the private sector and the focus of many companies is currently on coping with the crisis, as falling demand for mobility also leads to falling sales. In contrast, 46% of the cities surveyed stated that they were able to pursue their mobility strategy and planned projects without postponing them. For another 30% of the cities surveyed, the pandemic development led to an increase in activities and the implementation of mobility strategies was accelerated.

Pie chart representing how much COVID has impacted the city’s mobility plans
Pie chart representing how much COVID has impacted the city’s mobility plans
Survey of 14 cities — How has COVID impacted the city’s mobility plans?

The need for social distancing during the pandemic has implications for many aspects of our urban coexistence. First, it challenges the benefits of urban density, which is considered a central parameter of sustainable urban models. Secondly, it shows how limited the resource of public space is in compact cities. Temporarily increasing pedestrian space (by closing part of the street space to motorised traffic), regulating the use of street space (one-way streets for pedestrians) or regulating access (through time windows and delivery and loading zones) were some short-term measures implemented to optimise the use of public space. The use of IT applications and sensor technology to regulate the use of public spaces is not implemented in the majority of the cities surveyed.

Measures that have been implemented with a focus on the safety of pedestrians/residents
Measures that have been implemented with a focus on the safety of pedestrians/residents

One measure that many cities have taken during the pandemic, and which has been particularly highlighted in the media, is the expansion of cycle paths or the creation of new ones. In many cases, the space previously reserved for motor vehicles was made available to bicycles. The promotion of bicycle use does not only corresponded to many mobility strategies during normal times but also proved to be a noticeably safer way of getting around during the pandemic.

Some cities have been improving their cycle path infrastructure for years, and the pandemic has helped to accelerate these plans. In the survey conducted for EIT Urban Mobility, a discrepancy was found in the survey results relating to measures to promote bicycle use in cities. The vast majority of cities have not implemented measures such as “building pop-up bike lanes”, “classifying bike shops as system-relevant services” and “offering free or discounted shared access to bikes or e-scooters” in recent months. However, the majority of cities implemented schemes to support active modes of transport such as cycling and walking. The question then needs to be answered as to which schemes have been implemented if the three concrete measures asked for in the survey were answered in the negative by the majority of cities.

Measures that have been implemented with a focus on cycling in cities
Measures that have been implemented with a focus on cycling in cities

Temporary infrastructural changes such as pop-up cycle lanes are a good contingency strategy. Additional evaluation in the results shows that cities need to go further. Measures to be maintained after the pandemic, but which were not already part of the mobility plans, are almost non-existent.

Changes in mobility behaviour need good administrative support and pop-up bike lanes need to be transformed into permanent solutions. Otherwise, once traffic returns, cycling use may drop again.

So far, there seems to be some consensus that the risk of infection when using public transport is related to exposure time (travel time), passenger behaviour and the use of self-protection measures (silence and masks), crowding and ventilation conditions. Public transport is particularly affected by social alienation and has lost one of its great advantages: the ability to move crowds. With fewer resources due to the decline in ticket sales, public transport needs to be improved by increasing frequency and ensuring high standards of hygiene. Cleanliness is also a major issue in shared mobility.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, cities have gradually taken measures to slow down the spread of the virus in public transport. In the survey conducted for this study, the majority of cities mandated the use of masks (87%), increased communication about hygiene in public transport (73%) and established protocols for the comprehensive cleaning of public transport vehicles (69%). Temperature checks at (bus) stations were overwhelmingly not used as a way to reduce the risk of infection when using public transport.

Measures implemented with a focus on public transport in cities
Measures implemented with a focus on public transport in cities

Additional analysis of the leading question to city representatives shows, that 23% of cities planned to maintain cleaning protocols after the pandemic, while 46% considered it a short-term measure. Similarly, 21% of respondents said they would continue public transport hygiene communication activities, while 53% would not do so after the pandemic. Although these figures only give an idea of what measures could be extended in the future, they highlight the long-term effects that could last even after the pandemic ends and things return to normal.

Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, European cities were changing their mobility paradigms — and they still are. As shown in the survey analysis in Tables 1 to 3, measures that were taken vary strongly. Within the EU, there are a variety of local and national subsidies and government support, so different cities in different countries benefit from different scenarios:

- Some cities have hardly changed their plans or infrastructures compared to those already in place

- Other cities have had to put most of their strategic plans on hold to address more urgent health needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic

- Other cities had the opportunity to move forward with new mobility projects they had in the pipeline already, as the needs became even clearer as a result of the pandemic

The survey results show that the window of opportunity is still open for cities to take advantage of the behavioural changes brought about by the pandemic and drive a sustainable transformation of their urban mobility. Finally, local governments and transport authorities need to pay close attention to the economic impacts of the pandemic in the transport sector to address existing and current challenges. It is useful to distinguish the options for action at the EU, national and municipal level as well as for urban mobility service providers.

Covid-19 did, finally, prove to be an accelerator for urban development. Cities did not radically change with the pandemic, but adapted and evolved at a faster pace, with solutions already in place but not yet deployed on a larger scale. With this, it seems that some cities are not rethinking their long-term mobility strategies. On the contrary, they are using Covid-19 measures to promote some of the strategies instead. It is important to use the current crisis to create more resilient and climate-friendly urban mobility systems in the long term. In this regard, the changing demands on urban mobility systems imposed during the pandemic can also be seen as an opportunity to accelerate positive changes.

This article is based on survey results from 14 cities on the implementation status of mobility solutions in European cities. The survey was conducted as part of the “Covid-19 Thought Leadership” study, funded by EIT Urban Mobility. The study addresses challenges, requirements, best practices and strategies of a sustainable urban mobility system and names the economic effects of new mobility solutions. Find the full report here!

This article focuses on the detailed evaluation of the question “Which measures have you implemented in your city in the last months”? Compared to the overall study, additional aspects are discussed in regard to the leading question. Further authors of the chapter “Impact of Covid-19 on urban mobility systems” of the EIT Urban Mobility main study “Covid-19 Thought Leadership” study are Jana Helder, Miguel Mósca and Gretel Schaj from BABLE Smart Cities in Stuttgart (BABLE Community).

Innovative Use Cases on mobility solutions of European cities can be found on the BABLE platform.

Three bike riders wait in the shade at an intersection to cross a street
Three bike riders wait in the shade at an intersection to cross a street
Photo by Nomadic Julien on Unsplash

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