If the pandemic brought many uncertainties about what to expect in the future, it’s also true that the epidemic it’s at the same time a stimulus to evaluate what it’s functioning in our cities and what needs to be changed. This is Marco Steinberg’s proposal. Finnish designer and architect, launched at the Portugal Mobi Summit webinar the topic “How to rethink mobility from scratch?”.
The new role of public transportation might be the most urgent question at this point. “We need to reflect about the big investments made” defends the also CEO and founder of the consulting agency Snowcone & Haystack, based in Helsinki.
This will be the major issue to debate, a topic to which even the most strong defendants of public transportation cannot escape: “We know that by putting a large number of people in the same space we are increasing the probability of something such as what happened with this pandemic, to happen” warns the specialist. Reasons are strong enough to find other ways of mobility, with “hybrid solutions” and re-dimensions that can fit the new patterns of social distancing.
“Taking into account the restrictions now imposed on agglomerations over five, ten people, we will need to be able to apply that logic into the public transportation scale” If that happens – says Marco Steinberg – the way of thinking about mobility in cities will be very different.
It’s true that, in this moment, the public transportation sector it’s among those who lost more money. But the challenge here is to find means that make it economically viable also with very low occupation capacity. “It’s almost certain that this won’t make the operation very profitable and in many cases it won’t even be sustainable” admits the specialist. Although, on the other hand, it’s a challenge that can “generate economic opportunities”.
To change, it mustn’t be mixing up everything in order to go back to what we had before. The new model cannot weight only on the shoulders of the transportation sector: “It has to be a discussion that crosses all areas”. Mobility – warns the architect – it’s the “structural backbone” in which both cities and societies are based on. It’s undeniable that specialists, particularly of this field, must be listened to, recognizes Steinberg, although it’s important to underline that this is a discussion which needs contribution from other fields, such as the investment sector.
“In many countries such as Finland, a major part of the real estate investment is made by pension funds, therefore, it’s convenient to include them in the debate regarding transformations that might occur”. Furthermore because we might be heading towards deep changes in “urban density” if the real-estate bubble explodes, which would deeply affect investment funds: “It’s the delaying effect that we can already foresee to be a specific characteristic of this pandemic.”
Currently, one of the major social inequalities that Covid-19 brought to light it’s the “privilege” of those who can escape collective public transportation, while others don’t have an alternative to the train, metro or bus to go to work or for their daily movements: “The pandemic affected people in a disproportionate way, specifically hitting ethnic minorities and the poor” underlines the architect.
It’s exactly what we have been seeing in the metropolitan areas of Lisbon and Porto, as well as in the suburbs of the major cities in the north of Europe: “If I am a member of an underprivileged Kurdish family in Finland, I won’t have the option of not choosing public transportation on a daily basis”. This is actually the phenomena that brought nordic societies to defend measures that would allow to create opportunities for “the most fragile part of the population”, explains Steinberg.
This would be the logic that we could see applied also in the public transportation sector: “We must question not only the capacity and the investment on the infrastructures, but mainly, rethink this sector in function of the needs of the population that it’s more dependent on them”.
It won’t be a simple change, warns Steinberg, reminding us that all around the world, many cities made “huge investments” in mobility systems and now are not ready to abandon them. “The only thing that I can now envisage it’s that we are now entering in a cycle of hybrid solutions”
On one hand, taking advantage of what already exists, and on the other hand to stimulate different ways of mobility, such as the bicycle or others “micro solutions” of public transportation. This will be the tendency: “As a project manager and someone directly involved in these matters, I cannot imagine micro-mobility not being part of the solution”.
In the future, passengers transportations such as train, metro, tram and bus networks will have to rescale their infrastructures and operate with lower capacity.
“This is a huge challenge, necessarily imposing a connection with micro-mobility options” explains Marco Steinberg, defending that this will be the way to build small communities with a high level of autonomy.
Some of this new ways of micro-mobility could even be managed at a community level, allowing to create opportunities to generate jobs, explains Marco Steinberg, reminding that the regions most affected by the pandemic are also those that need public transportation the most : “Those solutions could even become economic engines”.
That is why there needs to be a common effort by private companies and central and regional governments, which will have to invest in these new ideas: “Those answers might help to decrease the gap between those who have more resources and those who don’t”.
If to reduce the scale was the formula to fight the pandemic, the same formula can be adopted to better manage cities, even those with very high population density.
“The Covid-19 experience in Scandinavia showed that what weights the most in the capacity to respond and to adapt to new challenges is density”. By looking at Sweden and Finland it’s possible to understand that the larger nursing homes where those hit the most by the virus.
That didn’t’ happen in Norway, where the infrastructures for the elderly have reduced dimensions: “In small spaces and with less people, it was much easier to implement confinement and other health measures in the moment that the first cases of infection where detected.”
It’s in this more circumscribed scale that will be possible to make a better management of social conflicts, public and private investments or mobility, defends the urbanist, underlining the major benefit for everyone: “finally giving back to cities, a level of humanity.”
Until now, what we have been seeing it’s the domination of the “industrial scale” that go over the needs of the most vulnerable, increasing phenomena such as poverty, racism or unemployment. We just have to look at the big highways in the United States to understand that the model it’s not working.
Recent convulsions in North American streets provoked by the killing of George Floyd, are not coming from nowhere, says Steinberg: “It’s true that the huge road infrastructures create safety belts, but at the same time, it managed to overcome urban networks and ignore realities that happen around them”. Therefore it’s urgent to create a kind of mobility that it’s capable of securing that “the most fragile do not fall or stay behind.”
The architect of innovating cities.
Marco Steinberg, besides being an architect, is also a consultant in the areas of urbanism. In Helsinki, Steinberg shares with Esko Aho, former Prime-Minister of Finland, the headquarters of Snowcone & Haystack and also the passion of helping governments to use innovation to plan the future. Strategic Design it’s his working tool that he uses it in order to find more efficient solutions for mobility and urban spaces.