Mobility: The New Normal

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing mobility. During the lockdown, public transport came to an almost complete standstill. At the same time, individual mobility has undergone a boom. This shift will likely last for some time and presents both risks and opportunities for climate and safety. 

The corona pandemic is changing mobility behavior. Photo: shutterstock - GetCoulson

The corona pandemic is changing mobility behavior. Photo: shutterstock – GetCoulson

On March 11, 2020, the world stood still. The World Health Organization WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The globe’s economies went into freefall, and not without consequences: The pandemic caused an unprecedented drop in global emissions and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the first half of 2020. Neither the global economic crisis in 2008 nor the oil crisis in 1979 caused such a severe slump. Compared to the same period of the previous year, 1,551 million tons less carbon dioxide (CO2) entered the atmosphere. This represents a drop of almost 9 percent against the same period in 2019, as reported by climate researchers in the scientific journal Nature Communications. According to the report, GHG emissions in ground-based transport alone fell by 40 percent (representing a drop of 613.3 million tons of CO2).

Madrid: One of Madrid’s most important thoroughfares, Paseo de la Castellana, became a pedestrian zone in May 2020, thanks to the coronavirus crisis. Photo: GettyImages/ NurPhoto

Madrid: One of Madrid’s most important thoroughfares, Paseo de la Castellana, became a pedestrian zone in May 2020, thanks to the coronavirus crisis. Photo: GettyImages/ NurPhoto

Supported by movement data, climate researchers determined that more than half the world population reduced travel by over 50 percent in April. Public transport systems lost dramatic numbers of passengers. The McKinsey Center for Future Mobility reported 70 to 90 percent fewer travelers. Municipal authorities kept public transport running but reduced service frequency and connections to cut costs.

Those who could, switched to private transportation to minimize their risk of infection. As not everybody owns a car and many sharing providers stopped offering their services during lockdown, sales of bicycles, e-bikes and e-scooters went through the roof. This was confirmed by a survey of 5,000 residents of major US, Chinese and EU cities conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). According to the survey, sales of bikes in the USA doubled in March compared to the previous year. European cities recorded similar developments.

Increased space requirements

The empty roads and new mix of transport in road traffic presented new challenges. For example, researchers observed riskier driving styles among car and motorcycle drivers due to the lower traffic volume. As a result, the number of traffic accidents decreased, but not proportionally with traffic volume. California, for example, reported 50 percent fewer serious injuries from traffic accidents, while traffic volume in the USA fell by more than 60 percent on average. European countries also recorded similar developments.

Air traffic minus 52.4 percent CO2.
Shipping minus 6 percent CO2.

Berlin: The many temporary bike lanes installed in Summer 2020 will serve as test cases for future traffic planning. Photo: istock / IGPhotography

Berlin: The many temporary bike lanes installed in Summer 2020 will serve as test cases for future traffic planning. Photo: istock / IGPhotography

A special challenge associated with the increase in personal mobility was reconciling the rising number of cyclists and scooters with the increased space requirements due to the distancing recommendations. As a remedy, cities closed certain streets to cars, while reducing the maximum speed limit in zones shared by cars and cyclists to 20 or 30 km/h. Another solution was the creation of pop-up bicycle lanes in separate traffic lanes. “Cities have reacted to the special situation and are now monitoring the effects these measures have on road safety,” says DEKRA Accident Researcher Markus Egelhaaf. However, it will take some time before these become apparent. How car traffic and micro-mobility will ultimately be balanced will only be discovered after the pandemic subsides.

Not so for freight transport: While many trucks initially came to a standstill due to factory closures and delivery bottlenecks, online trade flourished worldwide. According to research institute Inrix, courier, express and parcel services delivered up to 60 percent more parcels to private households and commercial enterprises at peak times. In China, the early epicenter of the pandemic, retailer and wholesaler Carrefour reported a six-fold increase in home deliveries. According to Inrix, freight traffic was almost back to its usual levels by the fall.

Variety of effects on mobility behaviour

Seoul: Social distancing and masks characterise Summer 2020 in South Korea’s public transport. Photo: iStock / Sanga Park

Seoul: Social distancing and masks characterise Summer 2020 in South Korea’s public transport. Photo: iStock / Sanga Park

After the first wave, states eased restrictions on public life. This drew more people back to the office. However, fear of infection with the novel coronavirus remains great, and the number of public transport passengers has not yet returned to pre-crisis levels. According to BCG, depending on the region, between 40 and 60 percent of those surveyed intend to reduce their reliance on public transport in the future, instead opting to cycle, walk, or drive their own car.

These developments also have an impact on climate. Since the end of the first pandemic wave in June 2020, most countries have returned to their previous levels of CO2 emissions, as reported in Nature Communications. Only greenhouse gas emissions generated by traffic remain below normal levels. China, the first country to end its lockdown, has demonstrated that the demand for bicycles and bicycle sharing remains high. For Western Europe, Inrix shows that by mid-June, passenger cars were covering approximately the same mileage as they were prior to lockdown.

60 Percent was the increase in bike sales in the United Kingdom in April 2020, when compared with the same period in 2019.

But what happens once treatment methods and vaccinations against Covid-19 become available? According to BCG, the emphasis on preventing infection will decrease. Trust in public transport will experience a comeback. This has also been confirmed by findings from China, where passengers were returning to buses and trains in greater numbers again by late 2020. Despite this resurgence, the number of passengers still remained at around 50 percent of pre-crisis levels. Further measures may lead to new confidence in the safety of local public transport. Digital booking services, such as those already being tested in cities such as Beijing would be one possibility. Real-time occupancy displays to avoid congestion at stops could also contribute to public confidence.

In addition to food and shopping orders, flowers too were added as a possible deliverable via Kiwibot. Photo: GettyImages - Fredy Builes/ VIEW Press

In addition to food and shopping orders, flowers too were added as a possible deliverable via Kiwibot. Photo: GettyImages – Fredy Builes/ VIEW Press

Nevertheless, all experts agree that passenger cars and micro-mobility will continue to play a major role in the future. To ensure that the permanent increase in individual mobility does not lead to an additional burden on the environment, China and the EU in particular are calling for a green economic recovery. Both have announced measures to support a complete switch to vehicles with more environmentally friendly drives.

Long-term impacts on mobility behavior

Delivery robots: Equipped with sensors and cameras, delivery robots are on the advance. Photo: JD.com/ Mao Yanzheng

Delivery robots: Equipped with sensors and cameras, delivery robots are on the advance. Photo: JD.com/ Mao Yanzheng

In the future, many people will want to cover distances shorter than 10 kilometers either by foot or with the help of micro-­mobility solutions. Concepts are therefore needed to ensure the safety of these mixing streams of traffic on and around our roads. To achieve this, in addition to city center tolls, there will be car-free traffic zones as well as the demand-driven installation of roadways for micro-mobility modes of transport. The Covid ­Mobility Works database listed more than 170 so-called Open-Streets-Initiatives in October 2020, where traffic routes are converted – for example, into pedestrian and bicycle paths or queuing buffer zones in front of stores.

Package drones: Chinese online retailer JD.com makes use of innovative delivery solutions. Photo: JD.com

Package drones: Chinese online retailer JD.com makes use of innovative delivery solutions. Photo: JD.com

In order to relieve the roads of commercial vehicles, drones and other automated vehicles will be considered for the “last mile”, at least in the medium term. Online retailer JD.com used automated delivery vehicles to supply hospitals in Wuhan, at the center of the coronavirus pandemic. With the help of drones, more remote settlements may be supplied. Colombian start-up Kiwibot expanded its fleet of robots from 20 to 50 units to provide food delivery services to cities in California, Colombia, and Taiwan. Another 500 units are currently in production.

The effects of these measures on environment and safety remain under observation. Traffic experts at McKinsey expect that measures taken now will see improvements in the medium term, be it a decline in accidents and lower environmental pollution or reduced health risks. The International Transport Forum ITF advises cities to look at emergency infrastructure as an opportunity. They can create the infrastructure today that they intend to keep after the pandemic.

Three Questions for Markus Egelhaaf, DEKRA Accident Researcher

Markus Egelhaaf, DEKRA Accident Researcher. Photo: DEKRA

Markus Egelhaaf, DEKRA Accident Researcher. Photo: DEKRA

How do you assess cities’ traffic concepts to cope with the additional volume of cyclists and scooters?
The generally lower traffic volume during the pandemic’s first wave defused potentially dangerous situations. However, we’ll have to wait until next spring to judge how good new traffic concepts really are, when traffic returns to normal.

What consequences does the boom in micro-mobility have for road safety?
The number of people injured and killed in traffic has decreased due to lower traffic volumes during the pandemic, but this is no reason to sound the all-clear. The accident-related risk of injury for bicycle or scooter users is significantly higher than for car, bus and train users. If the number and mileage of bicycles and scooters increases, the number of people injured will rise, without any significant decrease expected in other types of traffic. Above all, the number of solo accidents involving bicycles and scooters is very high. This problem occurs especially with returners and rookies.

What recommendations would you give local authorities?
First of all, the municipalities must develop a path network that enables micro-mobility adopters to get from A to B quickly and safely. It must be able to cope with the higher speeds that pedelecs can reach and the greater space requirements of cargo bikes. I also recommend a strict separation of pedal-powered and motorized traffic. Crossover traffic on cycle paths should also be eliminated. A new intersection design is necessary in many places. Authorities should monitor cyclists and scooter drivers more closely and punish dangerous conduct. In any case, now’s the right time to test new solutions for safe and future-oriented traffic and to redistribute the limited road space according to our changing needs.

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