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COVID19 and Mobility

Barcelona. Plaça Urquinaona. Ausias March, Ronda Sant Pere. Photograph by author, 16-04-2020

What a curious situation to find oneself in: writing about “rethinking the street” in a time of lockdown, without even being able to go out for a walk; reflecting on uses and activities in public space, and on where new forms of social and economic interaction are taking us, when virtually the whole of society is staying at home and radically altering its lifestyle routines simply in order to survive.

Mobility is now changing at the same speed as we ourselves are adapting to uphold a sense of “civility” in our cities.

One notion that keeps resurfacing in my mind these days is that of “non-mobility”. People are beginning to talk about the individual and collective right to “non-mobility” as opposed to the right to mobility, to being in a position to implement personal, communal and life projects thanks to an ability to plan transits and  move from one place to another safely and with reasonable economies of time, energy and money.

It’s a concept we attempt to define non-judgmentally, even though it represents the very antithesis of socialization, of what defines us as human beings, with a need – and desire – to share things with others. “The public authorities must also respect the wishes and needs of those who do not want to move”. Suddenly, the pieces in the puzzle have completely changed positions. To safeguard the survival of the community, we now have to make sure that individuals remain confined in their own homes. Because that’s the only way we might be able to isolate the COVID19 virus and reduce the impact of its propagation.

In this respect, we’ve suddenly come to a natural, collective awareness of issues which were previously still considered irrelevant to our movement habits: remote working, e-commerce, surveillance of movement in public places, traffic segmentation, the power of large movement hubs and, with regard to collective transport, between 80 and 90% fewer trips and a reduction of some 60/70% in overall traffic flows.

We’ve also seen a reduction in air pollution, for the simple reason that there are no cars on the roads. “The fewer the vehicles, the lower the pollution”.

These experiences – this great mobility laboratory created by COVID19 – may be giving us the answers to some of the mobility challenges we’ll face in the future.

COVID mobility chart. Spanish Ministry of Transport.

Here are some ideas:

Use of time. We’re used to quantifying mobility from a spatial perspective. The time variable has thus far only been used to preestablish departure times and how long journeys will take, or to assess the risk of traffic congestion. Little importance has been attached to time as a factor in the planning and programming of mobility (and the activities which generate mobility).

But now time is essential. We now have no time to move around, and we have to make up for that lack of time by carefully planning our movements. If only this traumatic lesson were here to stay, and when the lockdown phase is over we could use time to fulfil our potential, making better use of the time we once wasted on useless, unnecessary trips!

The time gained is also time for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and particles, and time in which we save fuel. Will we be able to maintain this attitude and continue to make the most efficient use of each trip when the movement limitations come to an end?

Vehicles, road space and parking. Suddenly, there are hardly any vehicles on our roads other than delivery trucks, essential services, and public transport. Where are all the cars and motorbikes? You can’t even see any parked at the sides of road! Everyone who owns a garage has got their vehicle safely stashed away.

Today, a car is a non-recoverable expense, and this, in the future, will lead to reflection on motor pool management. When the pandemic is over, our whole society will demand a new, fairer and more rational, policy of private vehicle ownership in urban environments.

Vehicle sharing. A renewed effort will be needed to recover confidence in the shared use of cars, bikes, and electric scooters. There will still be a risk of contamination, and it won’t be easy to convince people about the hypothetical advantages of sharing vehicles with people who may not be as hygienically aware as they are.

Self-confinement and proximity. We’ve learned to appreciate the existence of local businesses – pharmacies, bakeries, newsagents, corner shops – in our neighbourhood, and when we have been able to go out, it’s been a real pleasure just to walk to those places.  Let’s not forget that. And let’s not forget, either, that those businesses will only last if they are profitable. For that to be the case, there must be an undertaking to ensure balance between the goods and services offered and customer loyalty, with effective government protection of what are the city’s real key facilities. Those businesses are urban assets which ought not to disappear.

Planned shopping. Organizing the shopping and doing other things at the same time (walking the dog, taking out the rubbish or getting exercise) are perfectly compatible. When we go shopping, we should know exactly what we’re doing. Once again, it’s a case of saving energy, making the most of the time available and cutting down on impulse buying.

COVID19 is boosting online purchasing and home deliveries. Users appreciate the benefit (and accept the associated extra cost) of not having to leave the house to get the things you need (not only goods but also services).

The practical disappearance of paper money and coins. One habit that’s been reinforced over the last few weeks is that of substituting cash payments with payments by credit card, mobile phone, or computer. All types of transaction have been affected, including payment on public transport (how we miss the T-Mobility app!). Being able to pay or cancel a transaction without any physical contact or need for change to be given means safety from possible infection. Within a few weeks, money as represented by the face value of a coin will have disappeared from half the countries in the world.

Self-confinement at work. Who finds it easiest to get to work these days? Those who work near home. But what importance did we attach to workplace location when we were poring over job offers just a few months ago? This is another far-reaching factor of change. And also, what will employers be looking for when hiring people? Job candidates who can best be trusted to get to work with no problems, perhaps?

Working from home (WFH).We discovered this work panacea thanks to COVID19. It turns out that many activities can be done perfectly well from home. It’s just a pity we’ve had to go through this plague for the sectors concerned to realise things can be done this way.

The thing now is to know how to manage it properly. Because if this work model becomes established, its implications may be huge – also in terms of mobility.

It would considerably reduce “stable consumption of physical space” for professional activities which do not require face-to-face interaction, and the surplus space could then be used for other business initiatives. This would have a major impact on the market for office space and business premises.

It would also affect the offer of complementary services associated with such activities (parking lots, public transport networks, daily shopping…) and utilities associated with predominant services like IT, messenger/courier services and photocopying shops.

A whole universe of services will have to readapt (not disappear, but simply evolve and keep creating value) for people to be able to move around differently: points of departure and destinations will change, as will movement chains.

Work mobility patterns among people working from home will represent a radical change from the parameters usually considered in studies of demand, generating a more random work mobility segment, the behaviour of which will be hard to predict until good practices are consolidated.

These changes, adopted in an attempt to overcome the pandemic with as little disruption as possible, will undoubtedly affect the planning of mobility services.

Years of research into how activities carried out in urban environments impact mobility, and how certain mobility models are conditioned by the form and functions of urban space, are now being brought into question with the appearance of new variables, new possibilities and new needs which, once we have survived this critical phase, must be analysed to determine the positives that can be drawn from the COVID19 experience.

Barcelona, Plaça Urquinaona. Junqueres, Trafalgar. Photograph by author, 16-04-2020

Cover Image: The bubonic plague. Detail from The Triumph of Death (1562), oil on wood panel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), Museo del Prado, Madrid
Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Arquitecto, por la Universidad Politécnica de Catalunya (UPC), especialidad Urbanismo. He sido: Director General de Arquitectura y Vivienda de la Generalitat de Catalunya; Presidente del Comité Ejecutivo y Director General de la Autoridad del Transporte Metropolitano (ATM) de Barcelona; Miembro del Consejo de Administración de los Ferrocarriles de la Generalitat de Catalunya; Miembro del Consejo de Administración de la Autoridad Portuaria de Barcelona; Presidente de la Federación Internacional del Urbanismo, la Vivienda y la Ordenación del Territorio (FIHUAT); Consultor externo del Banco Europeo de Inversiones (BEI); Codirector del Proyecto Barcelona Movilidad (barcelonamovilidad.com). En la actualidad mis responsabilidades profesionales son: Director de una empresa consultora en el ámbito del urbanismo, la ingeniería urbana y la movilidad; Conferenciante y profesor invitado de cursos de Postgrado en la UPC y diversas Instituciones y Universidades Iberoamericanas.

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