COVID-19 Recovery: A game-changer for sustainable urban mobility?

Laurin Wuennenberg

Geography: All Regions
Sector: Energy

Opportunities for Non-Motorized Transport Infrastructure

The COVID-19 lockdowns had an immediate and drastic impact on transport systems and mobility, in particular on the mobility patterns of people. Strict regulations imposed by governments around the world have affected the delivery of and demand for public transport services in and across many cities and countries, as highlighted in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Impacts of COVID-19 on trips to public transport stations, indicating the steep decline in use of public transport.
Reprinted with permission.

The lockdown phase, as well as the incremental lifting of imposed restrictions, are bringing about new mobility patterns and sustainable transport opportunities in urban areas, implying positive health and environmental co-benefits. But the pandemic has also caused severe economic challenges for transport systems. In urban areas, public transport operators and providers of other mobility services face reduced revenues from the lockdown and its aftermath. Both will also have to bear greater operational costs to comply with tightened hygiene regulations. These combined effects are causing liquidity challenges and are endangering the financial health of transport infrastructure, public transport services, and mobility enterprises. The supply- and demand-side shocks for this sector will also cause private investors to become more cautious and request higher-risk premiums in the months and years to come.

Given the emerging opportunities associated with new mobility patterns and the challenges for public transport and mobility providers in urban areas, one can ask: how can we ensure that the COVID-19 recovery phase is a game-changer for planning, implementing, and financing more sustainable urban transport systems instead of losing the momentum and returning to old habits of using individual, fossil fuel-based transport solutions that pollute, contest, and burden our urban spaces?

This dichotomy of opportunities and challenges requires customized strategies for realizing sustainable urban mobility systems through:

(a) Sustaining and capitalizing on the new mobility patterns of people and the emergence of dynamic policy-making to expand non-motorized transport infrastructure.

(b) Reinforcing and adjusting investments in public transport and sustainable mobility infrastructure that already commenced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Financing solutions and supportive policy frameworks are needed for both strategies, not least because they will promote a sustainable recovery of our economies.

This blog focuses on strategies to leverage these opportunities, while a second blog will address the reinforcement and adjustment strategies.

What opportunities exist for non-motorized transport, and how can we leverage them?

The increased use of active, non-motorized transport emerged and spread in many cities affected by the pandemic. To reduce the use of public transport given the infection risks, many city authorities announced and implemented ad hoc measures for repurposing road space and ensuring the safety of people walking and cycling in cities. Examples of this were observed in Brussels, Milan, Berlin, Paris, Bogotá, Auckland, and many other cities around the world. It is important to build on this momentum of behavioural change and political agility to support the active mobility of people beyond the lockdown phase.

This trend can be strengthened through systemic transport policy measures, the collection of data on new mobility patterns to make the business case for new mobility services, and public investments in non-motorized transport infrastructure. Such infrastructure includes the permanent reallocation of public space to allow for additional bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks for pedestrians. It also involves car-free zones, parking facilities for bicycles, public bicycle-sharing systems and micro-mobility services, energy-efficient street lighting, charging stations for e-bikes and e-scooters, and data sharing and interoperability solutions to facilitate multi-modal urban mobility. Sustainable recovery measures can provide public investments and incentivize further transitions to sustainable urban mobility systems. Indeed, such mobility and public transport measures have already been announced as part of recovery packages enacted in Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. They are also being proposed in emerging and developing regions such as in some Latin American countries and India.

In light of the real and perceived infection risks and the resulting lower demand levels for the re-opening of public transport in the coming months compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, improved non-motorized transport infrastructure will offer people mobility choices and pre-empt the potential spike in private motorized vehicle use. This will allow us to maintain lower air pollution levels and lower carbon emissions from urban transport.

Moreover, advancing non-motorized transport can also be considered a complementary strategy for fostering equality and social inclusion in cities and addressing the needs of lower-income population groups. It is important, in this case, to learn from the lessons of the past to ensure that these options do not benefit only the wealthy and exacerbate existing income and wealth inequalities but rather that they help improve these problems. Indeed, many people, especially in emerging and developing economies, will not have the opportunity to work remotely or switch to private car use as a response to infection risks and reduced public transport services. It is encouraging to see that non-motorized transport infrastructure is also beginning to receive more attention and investment in emerging economies, such as in Indonesia.

The mid- to long-term positive effect of improved non-motorized transport infrastructure is better multi-modal urban mobility, which will in fact strengthen the use of public transport services, reduce inequality, increase public revenue opportunities, allow for the crowding in of private investors, and improve cities’ resilience to future health- or climate-related mobility shocks.

Identifying new financing solutions

Aside from public sector investments in times of economic recovery efforts, sustainable mobility solutions such as non-motorized transport need to be implemented through new business models and innovative financing solutions. Viable financing instruments for mobility projects with environmental benefits include green bonds, sustainability bonds, environmental impact bonds, or green loans.

Moreover, policy-makers, urban planners, and transport investors could consider new mechanisms for earmarking revenue flows. For example, bicycle-sharing systems can be financed through fee-based systems and by offering advertising space. Moreover, the increase of non-motorized, active mobility and the underlying physical infrastructure elements create co-benefits such as reduced air and noise pollution, better safety due to the slower commuting pace of people, increases in real estate and property prices, and higher retail revenues in affected areas. These anticipated value gains could be captured as revenue flows through development charges or tax-increment financing. This opens up opportunities for debt financing as well as crowding in private investments for new bicycle lanes, car-free zones, micro-mobility systems, and other non-motorized transport infrastructure.

The multitude of non-motorized transport benefits was already known prior to the COVID-19 lockdown measures. However, they have become increasingly apparent in the past few months—as have the risks of reverting to fossil fuel-dependent urban transport options. The time to take advantage of this momentum and foster the implementation of non-motorized transport options is during the economic recovery, for the sake of realizing more sustainable and resilient urban transport systems.

This commentary, written by Laurin Wuennenberg, was originally published as part of ISPI’s dossier on Sustainability and Infrastructure for New Growth in a Post-Covid Era

It has been reprinted with ISPI’s permission.