Sheila Watson, Deputy Director, FIA Foundation
Writing a blog for the commute is an interesting challenge during a global pandemic, when the concept of the commute has undergone such massive change. For myself, getting to work used to involve a walk, a bus, a train and then another walk, with plenty of time to read a lengthy article on the way. Now I simply stumble from my bed to my home office – very much a shorter journey!
And it is not just the commute which has changed. So many people around the world moved around differently during lockdown that many of us – particularly those living in in urban areas – saw and felt real benefits. Fewer vehicles on the roads originally meant lower levels of air and noise pollution, less congestion and more space for people to walk and cycle. In short, a huge global experiment in sustainable mobility was being played out in our cities. Some cities responded rapidly reclaiming road space and reshaping streets, shifting priority from cars and vans, and taking pressure off mass transit where distancing was difficult. Milan, for example, converted 35km of streets to pop-up bike lanes, seizing the opportunity to demonstrate how car-free spaces could improve quality of life for their citizens. A terrible threat to our health in the shape of COVID, began to look like an opportunity to secure real health benefits through allocating more space for cleaner ways of getting about.
Lockdown has undoubtedly provided great evidence for what is possible in our cities, but before we celebrate too much, opening-up again has already put those gains under threat as people struggle to get back to work and school safely.
Firstly, that necessary reduction in the use of public transport and other shared mobility modes whilst we develop our COVID-response, is turning into a real fear of using those modes ever again, and huge financial pressures for those who run them. Maintaining cities’ progress on climate change, equity of access, air quality, and congestion, means we need continued investment to ensure continued public use in the future. This is particularly important for hard-hit cities in the global north looking to restart economies now as winter sets in when, for many, walking and cycling will become less palatable. Measures like apps, enhanced sanitisation, and promoting staggered working times will all help. Auckland in New Zealand has implemented an app to track the numbers of people on bus services to help people to plan their journeys by letting them know how likely it may be safe to board all help in the short term. Improving the quality of public transport may seem counterintuitive to some policymakers now, but it is essential that these modes do not lose their place at the head of our push for truly sustainable mobility.
It is also essential that this investment continues the progress which is being made in making public transport user-friendly, and particularly for women. All of the evidence shows that women use these modes more than men. We also make up the largest proportion of key workers, so with renewed outbreaks a continual threat, the need for reliable transit is even clearer. Better lighting at bus and train stops; improved provision against harassment; and pricing which reflects our economic status earning on average less than men, are all key examples of what we need to do to ensure that investment in these services takes us forward in terms of accessibility and supports wider societal objectives.
Of course for some, the answer to avoiding crowds and the risks of disease has always been simple – personal vehicles for all. The truth is that a boom in personal vehicles on urban streets – a ‘carmageddon’ – would spell disaster for public health. It would place people, especially vulnerable road users at risk from injury, discouraging those who would otherwise choose active transport, all the while creating gridlock and flooding the air with pollutants linked to increased COVID infection rates as well as many respiratory, circulatory and development issues. It is also an economic impossibility for many in the poorest communities who could never access such an expensive option. More cars is not a solution to anything much, and certainly not to COVID-19, climate or air quality. So we must continue to support policies which press for cleaner vehicles and car-free urban zones.
The so-called ‘recovery packages’ which governments are exploring in order to reinvigorate their economies, are also crucial. Investments which are intended to support ailing economies must not return us to business as usual, but must instead ‘build back better’, with support for efficient, low-carbon, and clean modes. This is not an economically less robust focus. These modes offer real economic and job creation opportunities, whilst a green recovery that takes an integrated approach to health, climate and air quality, will lead to beneficial financial savings and co-benefits.
I am excited and optimistic that we can make steps forward out of this moment of great challenge and period of change. The political dimension is critical. Little can replace high-level political commitment combined with targeted funding – all the more critical in a time of falling revenues from public transport and economic downturn. It will take bravery and commitment on their part to see it through, and we must support those in the front lines of this battle – the policymakers and politicians.
As a first step, quantifying the benefits of temporary measures to support walking and cycling – not just the air quality and greenhouse gas benefits, but also increased urban access – will be essential in the political debate that will come. Capacity-building, good evidence and data, and examples of good practice are crucial. There is a wealth of positive action taking place in cities around the world, so we must share this good practice particularly with those in the global south who are in many cases overwhelmed simply dealing with the crisis itself. Initiatives such as the Real Urban Emissions’ Initiative’s (TRUE) which shows just how dirty our vehicles are remain vital in pressing for zero emission zones, and the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI) which has been supporting low-carbon vehicle policies in 70 countries for a decade, are great examples – and there are many more. Cities can build a better future, but we need to make sure each has access to the shared knowledge, experience and focus to do so in their own context.
We in the sustainable mobility community know what needs to be done. We have been arguing for it for years. This is our moment to bring all of that knowledge to bear, and to press the case to governments, policymakers and the public alike that a sustainable city, with clean and low carbon mobility is one that works for ourselves, our communities and our planet.