Has Covid-19 Sparked a Fast Track to Sustainable City Travel?

Image: Residents test out new modes of transport as Milan emerges from lockdown, Credit: Shutterstock

As cities around the world emerge from lockdown, a creative approach to urban planning will be central to building a new normal. Accounts planner Hattie Bottom is experienced in consulting on the future of mobility in cities – and with Covid-19 providing a fast track to active and electric transport systems, she finds out what part we should all be playing in the shift. 

In March, hundreds of kilometres transformed into cycle lanes overnight. All across the world, Bogotá, Paris, New York, Mexico City, Milan and London, people have taken to two wheels like never before. Cities, previously swamped by cars, have opened up to cyclists and pedestrians. 

Can this be a permanent revolution in the way we move around our cities?

There’s a clear reason behind the mass appearance of cycle lanes and pedestrian streets. Active travel (walking, running, biking, scooting, skating) has never been so essential to our lives and the functioning of our cities. Matthew Taylor, Environment correspondent for The Guardian explains how, “the coronavirus crisis means that packed public transport systems cannot run at full capacity. If people turn to private cars en masse it will lead to gridlock, economic meltdown… and a rise in dangerous air pollution – the last thing needed in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic.” Will Norman, London’s walking and cycling commissioner has emphasised that the “move wherever possible to cycling and walking” is a “not ideological opportunism” but “a necessity”. 

Without the usual ways to safely get around, many more people now own a bicycle, with UK bicycle shops experiencing record sales, some up 677% and employer cycle to work schemes up 200%. Those who’d forgotten about theirs, are encouraged to dust them off with government vouchers “to help get an estimated 7m unused bicycles in the UK out of the shed.” It’s the most sustainable travel change you can make, fixing up a bicycle you already own. London’s rental bicycles are also getting a boost with 14 more docking stations across the city and 1,700 more bicycles after the scheme’s most successful month ever in its 10 year history, in May.

Image: Velib bicycles and Lime electric scooters provide alternative ways to move around Paris, Credit: Shutterstock

In the less effort, more electrified, genre of active travel, e-scooters are finally allowed on roads in the UK. After their popularity in over 100 cities around the world, the UK has just brought forward a year-long trial and you can hire an electric scooter to ride on the road in the West Midlands; Portsmouth and Southampton; the West of England; Derby and Nottingham. 

The onslaught of these active travel initiatives is exciting, but many of them are temporary and precarious. Their fate is up to us; the drivers, scooters, skaters, bus trippers, cyclists, walkers and wanderers. Without change in our behaviour, the struggle to make our cities healthy, livable and sustainable, continues.  

Dr Orit Gal, a senior lecturer on innovation dynamics, systemic change, urbanisation and social entrepreneurship at Regent’s University London, uses an analogy to talk about “micro shifts in behaviours, social and material interactions that signal potential systemic change”. She calls these micro shifts “green shoots” because they’ve got to be “cultivated in order to fully develop and thrive.” Rather than jumping straight back into cars and traffic jams- continuing to ignore our cities’ deathly air pollution levels and CO2 emissions- we can choose to maintain some of the green shoots that have emerged from this lockdown. We can choose travel that promotes a more equitable, sustainable society. #BuildBackBetter, is a UK campaign, galvanising all those who don’t want things to go back to normal, “to come out of this crisis with a society better built to protect people’s health and the health of the planet”.

Let’s support these active transport trials, whether it be renting an e-scooter, cycling to work or simply walking in a newly pedestrianised street because these are our cities’ “green shoots” of change. Social media can help to nurture this behaviour change through simple social proofing. Social listening site, Pulsar, has seen Twitter conversations about bicycles soar, worldwide, to over over 9 million and try searching #jamskate to see how Instagrammers like Oumi Janta, in Berlin, are reviving city roller skating. E-scooter popularity is about to kick off too, with the first ever eSkootr Championship in 2021; it’s a “race series that’s unlocking the world of micromobility in our cities”.

Images: Lola, student and youth climate activist, takes part in the Build Back Better campaign, Credit: Build Back Better UK / Oumi Janta is bringing back roller skating in Berlin and beyond, Credit: Oumi Janta

No doubt, it’s incredibly hard to change city travel, our networks are so dominated by cars. The V&A explored this in the exhibition ‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World‘ earlier this year. Increasing the portion of active travel and lessening our reliance on cars requires a systemic change at a time when safe and private car travel has never been more appealing. Susan Kenyon, a travel and behaviour change academic, in conversation with The Guardian, stresses that on their own, more cycle lanes and pedestrianised roads, won’t cultivate lasting change in travel behaviour because “for a 100 years governments and industry have put cars and car use at the centre of our life and policy [decisions]…The reality of people’s everyday life is that you cannot walk or cycle to everything you need to do.” 

One way to get around this problem is localisation. Kenyon suggests that home working, improving broadband access and bringing back services to a local vicinity will help. Against the devastating destruction of the Coronavirus, the case for making neighbourhoods self-sufficient has been strengthened. There’s been a 45 million increase in Twitter conversations including the word ‘local’ and businesses are swiftly adapting, for example, Uber Eats have adapted their app with a new local pick-up map to match new found support for neighborhood restaurants. 

Policymakers are asserting confidence in the resurgence of localisation too. In her 2020 re-election campaign, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is leading with her vision for Paris to become a 15-minute city where everything you need is a short walk or bicycle ride away. It’s coined an “ecological transformation”. 

Image: Anne Hidalgo’s plans for an ecological transformation of Paris’ ‘Périphérique’ into a green zone through pedestrian priority and urban tree planting, Credit: Paris en Commun

Meanwhile, employers and educators have had to adapt to remote working with entire organisations and classrooms at home during lockdown. Remote working has suddenly become a credible option. Twitter has gone as far to say that staff can work from home ‘forever’. It will be really interesting to see how local communities blossom if people decide to permanently abandon long commutes or frequently bring remote working into their routine. 

Going back to active travel, you may be thinking, what about those of us who need public transport or live in rural areas where active travel just isn’t feasible? The good news is that there’s newfound momentum and governmental support for the electrification of travel with Covid-19 economic stimulus packages. 

The German government has just doubled its EV subsidy and in many countries, these subsidies make EVs as affordable as their diesel or petrol counterparts. In fact, in France you can now rent Citroën’s Ami electric car for just $22 a month. Bloomber NEF predicts that it will only be a few years until EVs have price parity without subsidies, by 2025. 

In the public transport sector, UK start up Arrival has designed a new zero-emissions electric bus that costs the same as the diesel or petrol equivalent, due to unique and localised microfactory assembly technology. The busses, launching in the coming months, are 50% cheaper to run and have moveable seats, screens and touchless travel to enable social distancing and make public transport safer.

Image: A fleet of Proterra fully electric buses, Credit: Proterra

There are still lingering fears about EV charging infrastructure but this is as much a communications issue as a government investment issue. Problems about charging infrastructure become solutions, however, when you consider the ingenious way EVs can support the electric grid. Joann Muller, author of Axios Navigate, explains that “vehicle-to-grid technology enables electric vehicles to store surplus energy from intermittent wind or solar sources during non-peak periods and feed power back to the grid when needed.” Energy experts have realised that electric school busses are a perfect fit for this vehicle-to-grid technology because of their predictable usage patterns and idleness in the day. Ryan Popple, founder and CEO of Proterra, has calculated that “if you fully electrify the school bus fleet, you’re offsetting a couple of nuclear power plants” and that’s before your factor in the huge health and societal benefits of cleaner air in school communities and better access to school.

Even though rural communities will find it hardest to switch to active or electric travel, UK statistics show that 58% of car journeys are shorter than 5km. These short to medium-distance trips are perfect for electric bicycles in both rural towns and cities. Dr Rachel Aldred, transport expert at the University of Westminster, explains to The Guardian that “for short to medium-distance trips many people should be able to use a bike or e-bike rather than a car or e-car, so infrastructure for bikes of all types – much cheaper, greener, and more efficient than e-cars – should be prioritised”. 

In the last few months, we’ve been given many reasons to switch to active and electric travel, let’s make this a permanent revolution in the way we move around our cities. What part will you play in our cities’ green recovery?