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Driving Change

How COVID-19 will redesign urban mobility

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The streets of Oakland, California.

Thomas Hawk

The pandemic and shelter-in-place measures have had the very clear effect of shutting down most transportation — flying, using public transit, and commuting to work — temporarily. But it looks like the crisis could have a more unpredictable and longer-lasting impact on some forms of mobility and shared services. 

Hints of early data (PDF) and anecdotes coming out of China (Italian) suggest that new car sales in areas affected by quarantines, such as Wuhan, have come soaring back after the cities have started to open back up. Why? Partly because customers "see personal vehicles as safer than public transport." 

That'll be a worrisome trend if a rise in new vehicles sold comes mainly from those using internal combustion engines. Policies — incentives and mandates — will be needed to try to ensure a portion of those vehicles are electric.

Generally speaking, electric vehicle sales in China (the world's largest auto market) have been flatlining for the past two years due to declining government support, and 2020 was supposed to be a breakout year. No longer. Global EV sales are expected to drop by close to half this year, according to Wood Mackenzie.

The flip side of the trend of more private vehicles is equally disturbing. Public transit is going to really struggle to bring back ridership and convince riders (and drivers) that these mass shared environments can keep people safe from viruses. 

A post-pandemic world has the potential to have better urban mobility options than the world before. We need transportation leaders who make smart decisions now to get us there.
So far they haven't. In New York City, a staggering 41 transit workers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have died as a result of complications of COVID-19. The death rate of a transit worker in New York is double that of the average person in that state.

Likewise, last week San Francisco slashed the vast majority of its Muni transit services because it said 40 percent of its operators were not working. Transit drivers could be effectively protected by protective gear, but cash-strapped agencies don't appear to have the funds to properly protect folks. 

The lack of operations and fares is a massive blow to transit services. However, there's an even greater threat coming for public transit: shrinking sales tax, lower parking fees, gas taxes and all of those things associated with a major recession. City transit systems are funded by a hodgepodge of local, state and federal funding. 

Even the hottest of mobility trends — such as shared scooter services — are facing an equally dark landscape. The biggest scooter players, Lime and Bird, essentially have ground to a halt, suspending services in many major cities in the U.S. and Europe. could rightly argue that these over-inflated micromobility services were headed for a crash anyways. But the pandemic has condensed a slow quarterly contraction into the equivalent of a TikTok video. 

Despite the hard transportation times, it's not all doom and gloom for post-pandemic mobility.

Cities with strong transportation departments, such as Oakland, California, are shutting down through-way access on many residential streets to make more space for residents to walk, bike and exercise in their neighborhood. Oakland opened up 74 miles of city streets to pedestrians and cyclists. 

Such local urban mobility policies could show cities the positive effects of refashioning cities around moving people instead of cars. (The National Association of City Transportation Officials is holding a webinar on this topic at 11 a.m. PDT Wednesday).

Likewise, the massive drop in air pollution in polluted cities such as Los Angeles is showing cities that by slashing car use, the air is almost instantly cleaner. Cities need to follow up on this emergence of clean air with policies and incentives that continue to spur things such as telecommuting and electric commuter buses. 

Finally, the perfect transportation option for a pandemic is seeing renewed attention: biking. Both bike use and shared bike use is up in many cities, and some local governments are even rolling out pop-up infrastructure to accommodate the boost. 

A post-pandemic world has the potential to have better urban mobility options than the world before, but we need transportation leaders who make smart decisions now to get us there. 

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here.

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