The fact that mobility in cities will not be the same after the pandemic it’s something we have no doubt about. The question is, what will it change? With social distancing, public transportation is now a days, the last resource. And the use of the private car is not part of most European capitals’ plans.
“Conditions are created for a major increase in micro-mobility”, says John Siraut, English specialist that studies social and economic impact of public policies regarding transportation. This week, he was our guest for the interview moderated by Paulo Tavares and Charles Landry, curators of the Portugal Mobi Summit.
Electric bicycles and scooters are something that we see more and more in urban centers; “Here in London, for example, the main roads where closed off, creating the conditions for people to circulate”. That is the option that Siraut says it’s developing in most European cities, as a way to avoid the “rush” for the private car.
Removing space for cars and providing better conditions for cyclists and pedestrians are the solutions that municipalities found to keep the city moving.
That was already the strategy of “many mayors across the world” to fight atmospheric pollution in cities. And now it’s reinforced with the need of protecting populations from Covid-19. “With the pandemic, we saw precisely a significant increase of the quality of air in very problematic cities”.
It’s also the case of London, explains the economist, giving the example that is closer to him. “In these months we could actually see the horizon and the skyline much clearly. Only now, with clear sky, we realize how we where living asphyxiated”.
This is the impulse that politicians need to show that going back its not an option for cities that strive for achieving sustainability. “No one wants to go back to normality if normality is what we had before”
And since the pressure for the economy to start recovering increases day by day, micro-mobility will be the only way to also secure social distancing. “Each city will find its strategies, but most mayors have been insisting in the need to take on the benefits of the increase in air quality to go further, or at lest, to keep what was already conquered”
Increase infrastructure for lighter means of transportation, and at the same time, limit car circulation it’s the challenge that cities are facing, defends the specialist.
“Electric scooters, that were forbidden in many urban centers, are back in some streets of the UK, for example” exemplifies Siraut, to illustrate the return of micro-mobility in cities.
It’s the answer to achieve the level of mobility that economies need without compromising the social distancing that the pandemic imposed in these last months: “Without a doubt, this will boost the use of bicycles, scooters and pedestrian circulation”, defends.
“Only now, with this clear sky, we realized how we have been living asphyxiated”
What’s next, it’s impossible to foresee, but the British economist says it has “a lot of trust” in these new tendencies that where born with the needs created by the pandemic: “My hope is that people see the advantages of this mobility and give up the car”.
Although, before that, urban centers still have a challenge ahead – to plan cities, focusing urban policies in improving accessibility for pedestrians, bicycles and scooters. “What we need is more space for people, not for vehicles”.
Many of the paths that are now open for micro-mobility where conquered from the space previously occupied by cars, says the specialist. The next challenge is to recover the economy by reopening stores, bars and restaurants, squares and terraces that can guarantee public health safety. “We need to start thinking in solutions that allow cyclists to take ownership of urban streets so that mobility can also return with the same efficiency”.
Public transportation might go through some difficult times in the near future, warns John Siraut. But once again, its social distancing putting down the rules. Buses, trains and metro will have to “substantially” increase available spaces so to protect passengers from the danger of infection from the new coronavirus”.
“The main problem is that that kind of investment won’t compensate by far the investment costs if public transportation is only serving 10% of what it used to serve.”
That is the major weakness of the sector which, at this moment it’s facing many uncertainties about the capacity to resist to social distancing measures. “The more public health policies endure, the more complicated the recovery will be”, warns the economist, reminding us the thousands of millions in revenues that public transportation is loosing every week in cities like London or New York.
“The longer social distancing endures, the more difficult will be the recovery of public transportation”
These are losses that are accumulating day after day and that will not only compromise the offer in a post-pandemic time, but will most probably need a rescue of the whole sector from governments: “I hope that with time, people can go back to collective transportation means and that cities can find again strategies, more focused on sustainability and less oriented towards the private car.”
If the return to the massive use of public transportation is, for now, postponed, community life seems to be back. It could also seem like a paradox, but social distancing got neighborhoods and small urban communities closer. With limited mobility due to isolation, cities turned inwards: “What we saw almost everywhere in Europe and also in the United States was a revival of the community spirit”.
In Lisbon, Rome, Madrid, Paris and many populated cities, living the neighborhood reflected not only in the inner help between neighbors but also in the reactivation of local commerce. But the issue of the impact of digital mobility, are not to be frowned upon, warns Siraut: “The issue it’s also about knowing if, returning to normality, people will keep consuming in local commerce or buying through the internet”. The answer will dictate the nature of these neighborhoods. Or they become dormitories, or their stores will transform into “meeting points” for the community, concludes the specialist.
Economist, specialized in wide economic and social impact from public policies on transportation. A major part of his work it’s focused in the analysis of the investments in the field of mobility such as, for example, highways, airports, roads, harbors, parking lots or railways. Now a days, he is the Director of Economics Jacob, a global company with headquarters in Dallas, Texas, with a wide range of activities, from urban planning, smart cities, hydric resources management, renewable energies or infrastructures linked to sustainable mobility.