THE IMPACTS OF COVID-19 ON URBAN MOBILITY
This essay was initially written in April 2021 for the fulfilment of EDHEC Business School's MSc in Global & Sustainable Business.
Urban Mobility and the Impacts of COVID-19
In recent years, cities all over the world found themselves amidst a mobility renaissance: new forms of connected and shared mobility were emerging, overburdened public transit systems were augmented, and eco-friendly alternatives for commuting and urban travel were under construction (Bert et al., 2020). Due to the latest global health pandemic, however, urban transportation usage plummeted to its lowest level in decades. This was particularly evident as “normal” day-to-day life was halted through quarantines and national lockdowns, which ceased commuting and leisure trips for millions of people worldwide. NYT’s The Great Empty provides a glimpse into the surreal shots of deserted roads and empty highways, reflecting the decrease in commercial and industrial activity.
Whilst vaccination plans are gradually put in action, the (perceived) threat of the coronavirus still remains with consumers altering long-standing habits to avoid infection (Heineke et al., 2020). The present crisis is, therefore, also expected to have a longer-lasting impact on the way people move from A to B. Social distancing practices, combined with fear of the close physical contact that is often inevitable in urban transportation, thus, raise the question whether this is the beginning of the end of the urban mobility renaissance or whether this is a unique opportunity to further overhaul urban mobility to the benefit of the health of citizens and the planet.
As 66% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, we must reimagine the future of urban mobility (BCG, 2021). Hence, this essay will (1) examine how COVID-19 has altered consumers’ choices and preferences of urban mobility, and (2) suggest stakeholder-specific actions to continue the sector’s development towards future-resilient, smart and sustainable urban transport. The report will, thereby, shed light on some of the key trends that will shape the next “normal” in the urban mobility industry
Whilst cost and convenience have traditionally been key deciding factors when customers choose transport modes, reducing the risk of infection has become the primary consideration, overtaking even time to destination in importance.
Shifting Consumer Attitudes: Health, Sustainability & the Modal Mix
As the coronavirus continues to take its toll across the globe, the fear of infection and physical distancing significantly influence consumers’ mobility behaviour and preferences. Whilst cost and convenience have traditionally been key deciding factors when customers choose transport modes, the illustration below shows that reducing the risk of infection has become the primary consideration; overtaking even time to destination in importance (Heineke et al., 2020). This implies that, with consumers intensively focusing on health, they prefer modes of transport that are perceived as more hygienic and safer. As consumers have switched to private cars, bicycles or walking, the use of public transport and shared mobility thus decreased dramatically during and after lockdowns (Lozzi et al., 2020).
Whilst the aforementioned shift in consumer behaviour suggests that the overall desire of customers to “move” remains intact, the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on urban mobility are also observable from a sustainability perspective. In particular, the global health pandemic has increased consumers’ awareness of the negative consequences of travel, including congested roads and heavy emissions (Garibaldi et al., 2021).
Moreover, the pandemic highlighted a new consciousness that an increasing number of citizens has about their cities’ pollution. The improvements in air quality during the quarantines have made people reconsider health as their priority. A survey across six European countries (illustrated below) shows that 68% demand protection from air pollution, even if it means preventing polluting cars entering city centres (Dornier, 2020). The same survey found that one in five people plan to cycle more and one in three people plan to walk more after the pandemic’s lockdowns. It is thus expected that customer preferences will increasingly favour micromobility options, such as bikes and e-scooters, to move around in urban environments (Bert et al., 2020). In fact, the use of bicycles is expected to increase by 6% and shared micro-mobility is expected to increase 3% after the pandemic (Heineke et al., 2020).
These factors, combined with new ways of working and living (e.g. remote working, virtual experience economy), are shifting the modal mix. According to a McKinsey study (results illustrated on next page), there will be shifts in mobility modes all over the world by 2030, with a particularly considerable change in Europe (Hattrup-Silberberg et al., 2020). Whilst the usage of private vehicles is expected to decrease drastically until 2030, for instance, new modes of transport, such as roboshuttles, and (un)pooled robotaxis, will play a crucial role in Europe’s urban mobility. In addition, mobility leaders are reimagining the future of urban mobility with continued investments in ACES — autonomous driving, connected cars, electrified vehicles and shared mobility — to account for the pandemic’s impact on consumer behaviour, policy making and regional economics (Heineke et al., 2020). The next section will take a closer look of what these consumer changes mean for a varied set of stakeholders.
From Ceased Mobility to Future Mobility: An Action Plan for Mobility Stakeholders
Depending on how the coronavirus pandemic plays out, the way stakeholders organise their mobility strategies will vary markedly around the world. Whilst urban mobility began to organise itself in a non-standardised manner across the globe pre-COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on the global economy has amplified these regional differences (Hattrup-Silberberg et al., 2020). For instance, a city that is an infection hot spot may need to enforce measures strictly limiting mobility, whilst other cities in the same region or country might operate similarly to pre-crisis days. These differences could impact customer demand and available travel options; thereby, making (urban) mobility truly hyperlocal. As cities pursue their own, potentially uncoordinated, development agendas, this may however lead to increased regulatory uncertainty; “some might view the crisis as an inflection point to accelerate the transition towards sustainable mobility, whilst others could loosen regulatory mandates to prop up their ailing automotive industries” (Heusler et al., 2020:2). An effective response of mobility players and regulators will, thus, have to be aligned within the local and/or regional context, whilst placing expanded consumer preferences and a greater focus on sustainability at the heart of any long-term urban mobility strategy. The illustration below sheds light on some of the key actions across a potential multi-actor development plan for urban mobility. Overall, the coronavirus pandemic will have a sustained influence on urban mobility, driving changes in the macroeconomic environment, technology, regulatory trends, and wider consumer mobility choices.
An Outlook for the Years ahead
Change has been the driving force in urban mobility for a long time and will continue to define the sector. Whilst it may seem that the mobility renaissance has come to a halt, this first impression overlooks recent developments that will have a tremendous impact on urban mobility in a world forever altered by COVID-19. In particular, increased activity and exponential growth across several non-traditional areas of mobility can be expected to shift the modal mix within the next decade (particularly in Europe).
Within this context, changing consumer attitudes and behaviours will shape the next “normal” of urban mobility. This will be further complemented with new or stronger roles of stakeholders (e.g. regulators), hyperlocal mobility (e.g. city-specific rules that resonate with the local context), new forms of cooperation (e.g. to collaborate on a public-private framework to ensure consistency in guidelines) and a shift in innovation strategy (towards ACES and urban air mobility). The multi-actor action plan proposed in this essay is poised to build a collaborative urban mobility ecosystem centred on its people, and anchored by values of health and safety, sustainability and inclusivity.
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Dornier, P. (2020). No going back: European public opinion on air pollution in the COVID-19 era. [Last Accessed: 17 April 2021]
Garibaldi, M., Hannon, E., Heineke, K. & Shao, E. (2021). Mobility investments in the next normal. [Last Accessed: 17 April 2021]
Hattrup-Silberberg, M., Hausler, S., Heineke, K., Laverty, N., Möller, T, Schwedhelm, D. & Wu, T. (2020). Five COVID-19 aftershocks reshaping mobility’s future. [Last Accessed: 14 April 2021]
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Lozzi, G, Rodrigues, M, Marcucci, E, Teoh, T, Gatta, V, Pacelli, V (2020), Research for TRAN Committee – COVID-19 and urban mobility: impacts and perspectives, European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, Brussels
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