As pointed out by the United Nations, the ongoing health crisis has expanded to “a crisis of urban access, urban equity, urban finance, safety, joblessness, public services, infrastructure and transport” with severe effects on wellbeing and quality of life. At the same time, cities have taken centre stage as regards the implementation of measures to tackle the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A study conducted in Northern Italy has shown that the spread of COVID-19 correlates with the intensity of use of public transportation, legitimising the choice of many public authorities to reduce public transport capacity by 50% for long periods. In turn, a survey regarding mobility habits before and after the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy has demonstrated how the increase of private transport and sharing mobility systems is a consequence of the fear of becoming infected when using public transportation.
At the same time, some local authorities have come up with prompt initiatives to deal with these new mobility behaviours (e.g., Milan’s Open Streets Plan), encouraging walking by creating temporary pedestrian zones or biking by supporting the installation of pop-up cycling lanes, as highlighted by Karsten Zimmermann in EURA Conversation #4.
In the city of Palermo (in Southern Italy), known for its congestion and a poor public transportation system, the pandemic has spurred two events that have rapidly influenced people’s mobility choices. On the one hand, thanks to a national incentive to encourage the purchase of micro-mobility devices, hundreds of bikes and scooters were bought and streets were rapidly populated by scooter users of different ages. On the other, the number of electric scooters running in the urban area grew rapidly due to the decision of a number of sharing mobility operators to enter the local market.
Although it is too early to understand the full effects of this process, the experience of various cities (see, for example, the case of Vienna) tells us that, in most cases, electric scooters are replacing journeys that would, otherwise, have been made by other forms of sustainable mobility (e.g. public transport).
In the context of a city that is investing billions of euro in the redevelopment of the metropolitan rail network, this raises important questions relating to the future organisation of the city and the transition towards a smarter and more sustainable mobility system. These questions include: How are these change in mobility practices, brought about by the pandemic, going to impact on the organisation of the city in the long-term? Due to their increasing popularity among citizens, will shared and micro-mobility options undermine the city’s already fragile public transportation system? To what extent can policy makers adapt future development strategies to cope with this changing context?
It is clear that cities need to work out ways of integrating conventional and innovative mobility solutions and, if they can get this right, they can have a tremendous beneficial impact on the prosperity and wellbeing of citizens. A risk is that public and individual approaches to mobility could come into conflict. This needs to be avoided.
Local government and civic leaders need to bring about a qualitative leap in the understanding of the functioning of cities after the pandemic. This will require a deep change in local governance in order to increase the coordination of mobility stakeholders and the participation of people in the development of future transport strategies.
EURA Conversations will now take a break for the summer. We will restart the Conversation series on Monday 4 October 2021. Please consider sharing your ideas in this international space.