The Covid-19 crisis has generated an unprecedented surge in travel demand, raising concerns about transportation’s near- and long-term future. In recent months, lockdown tactics have brought transportation activity in urban places worldwide to a halt. The resulting significant improvements in air quality underscore the apparent trade-offs between transportation activity and the environment.
As the initial wave of the pandemic fades in several nations, two key questions arise. Will urban mobility patterns recover to pre-outbreak levels, or will the shock have a longer-term impact on how people travel? Second, how should governments adapt to these shifts to keep urban transportation systems on track for long-term sustainability?
In less than a year after the SARS pandemic in 2003, transportation activity was restored to pre-SARS levels. The financial shock of the international financial crisis in 2008 had a minor long-term impact on US city transportation habits. As the problem fades, experience shows that travel volume in urban areas will eventually return to pre-crisis levels.
Preliminary data indicates that transportation activity is resuming in locations where lockdown measures have been relaxed. Street gridlock in Wuhan, for example, appears to be recovering to pre-pandemic levels, and transport hub activity in Korea is nearly back to 2019 levels. This increase in transportation activity is accompanied by a rise in local air pollution and CO2 emissions. Air pollution levels in Paris, for example, have already recovered to 2019 levels.
The Covid-19 epidemic could result in long-term changes in how we travel.
Even if total travel returns to pre-crisis levels, the scope and intensity of the pandemic could cause long-term changes in how people travel, especially in the absence of a vaccine. To limit their chance of getting the virus, many people may continue to avoid riding public transportation. Shifting journeys from public transit to biking and walking will have a favorable environmental impact, and non-motorized modes of transportation are on the rise in many cities. Low oil costs and aggressive marketing by automobile manufacturers in the aftermath of the crisis may encourage individuals to use private cars.
The net environmental effects of these changes are still unknown. The comparative attractiveness of biking and walking vs. private car use as alternatives to public transportation will be shaped by city-specific elements such as the parts of its population, the rate of its walking and biking groundwork, and its geographic structure. The timing of the lifting of lockdown restrictions can have ramifications for long-term adjustments in mode choices, to the extent that weather conditions impact the uptake of walking and cycling.
In the post-recovery period, public policy can significantly impact the future of transportation systems.
The Covid-19 problem may be a “moment of transition” for personal mobility to the extent that it disrupts travel habits in fundamental ways. As a result, governments have a one-of-a-kind opportunity to encourage a transition toward more environmentally friendly transportation practices. Many communities have seen this opportunity and are aggressively developing bike lanes and providing incentives for low-emission modes of transportation.
Governments should continue to enhance policies that encourage people to walk and cycle more in cities, discourage driving, and promote public transportation. To avoid a long-term departure of passengers, governments must build faith in their ability to handle the public health concerns associated with public transit. Face mask regulations, disinfection methods, thermal screening, and contactless payment choices can help limit the danger of transmission. Improvements to public transportation are being funded.
While many cities have made substantial progress in encouraging people to walk and cycle, fewer have taken steps to reinforce disincentives for people to drive their cars. Policies that increase the cost of car ownership and use (e.g., registration fees and distance-based charges) and regulatory measures such as urban vehicle access regulations are all used to discourage car use. Policymakers should investigate modifying these policies to ameliorate distributional consequences in places where few sustainable alternatives to public transportation exist, as well as exploring new types of optimized, on-demand shared mobility services.
Finally, establishing favorable cities to non-motorized modes of transportation will be crucial in facilitating more sustainable transportation systems, especially if people continue to be hesitant to use public transit. Providing appropriate infrastructure and incentives such as bicycle purchase subsidies are two proven policy strategies for doing so.
Restoring urban mobility should not be done at the expense of other things.
Despite the apparent hurdles of greening urban transportation during this time, concrete policy options to adapt to and leverage mobility patterns as the need for urban travel returns to pre-crisis levels are available. Given the importance of the transportation sector for the environment, public health, and long-term social resilience, as the globe emerges from the Covid-19 crisis, the development of sustainable, inclusive transportation systems should remain an important policy goal.
Video Courtesy: CNBC International