When cities reopened following months of lockdowns, they were no longer the same; or perhaps their citizens were different. Restaurants, bars, and clubs flooded outdoors, invading sidewalks and even streets or parking spaces at times. Outdoor activities increased exponentially while parks were filled with all sorts of events: yoga classes, political meetings, and actual outdoor education. Similar phenomena have occurred, at different times and in different ways, in almost every city across Europe and the world. After all, it could not have been otherwise: after several months indoors, the pandemic forced people to rethink their way of living and highlighted the contradictions affecting their lives. The same applies to urban systems: new ways of moving around and conceiving public spaces are now under discussion, with historic cities being regenerated and new neighborhoods redesigned.
An example of such contradictions can be found in urban mobility. It was only when everyone was at home and there was no traffic in the streets that people realized a crucial inefficacy of everyday life: cars remain parked 95% of the time, occupying a significant portion of public space. Just before the pandemic, we witnessed the development of two major innovations in the field of mobility: mobility on demand and mobility as a service. These ideas, English and European respectively, put users at the centre. It comes as no surprise that these platforms have once again boomed in the post-pandemic period.
Until a few years ago, a city's efficiency was assessed by evaluating the quality of its public transportation. Rail and road networks were the only alternatives to private cars and having a consistent number of lines was sufficient to consider the system of transportation as “efficient”. However, everything recently changed: the point of view has shifted from the 'broad' view of the public administrator, responsible for planning the entire system, to the 'narrow' and demanding view of the user, focused on the user experience. Bearing this in mind, the first sharing platforms started to emerge. Nowadays, citizens can drive a car through car-sharing, share a car by carpooling, or even switch from a bicycle to a scooter or from a moped to a car ('intermodality'). As such, users can select a mean of transportation according to their needs without having to own any of them.
Urban mobility’s evolution has been at the heart of the debate for several years, becoming even more crucial in light of the recent global pandemic that has radically revolutionized the very fabric of our urban centers. On the one hand, there is a tendency to move less. People are working from home and rediscovering neighborhood life. Not only are traditional metropolises no longer sustainable, but cities are evolving to a multi-nodal model. Milan, Melbourne, and Paris are just a few examples of municipalities planning a polycentric development, a model wherein housing, offices, and services are located within the same neighborhood, all within a 15-minute radius.
On the other hand, there is a continuous evolution towards new, less polluting, and more flexible means of transportation. Against this backdrop, an extremely relevant macrotrend we witnessed is the transition from an ownership culture to a usership one. Despite an initial decline at the onset of the pandemic, micro-mobility services have revolutionized urban mobility, making it more flexible. Digital platforms for short-term rental allow citizens to rent a car, motorbike, bicycle, or even a scooter, free to decide at the very last minute. As a result, it increases access to public transportation while reducing the number of cars on the road and lowering the environmental impact.
An additional important development in the transport sector regards the automotive market’s electrification. While in 2020 the automotive market collapsed because of the pandemic, electric cars’ sales accelerated. Growing awareness around climate change, together with an expanded recharging network and significant public incentives of various kinds (from price discounts to free parking), has made people choose with more awareness when buying their new vehicles. Data from ACEA, the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, are quite impressive. In the second quarter of 2021, electric cars accounted for 7.5% of market shares, plug-in hybrids for 8.4%, and hybrids for 19.3%. Compared to the previous year, the share of petrol-powered vehicles fell by 10%, while diesel cars dropped by 20%. Across most of Europe, the number of electric cars registered in 2020 skyrocketed between 200 and 400%.
In more recent years, public awareness around climate change, along with growing demand from international markets, has generated fierce competition among manufacturers and increased public-private partnerships to ensure widespread charging infrastructure —a mutually beneficial collaboration in view of the EU’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence that automotive electrification will not be enough to decarbonize the way we travel. Electrification is only part of the solution: reductions in travel and mode shift are also essential. Taking this into account, not even autonomous vehicles could solve congestion or pollution problems. On the contrary, cooperative mobility has the potential to alleviate congestions and accidents and does not require vehicles to be fully autonomous.
Given the number of forces pushing towards opposite directions, it is difficult to predict urban mobility’s future trajectory. However, if we want the ecological transition to succeed, we must involve ordinary people as actors of change. At the end of 2019, the European Commission defined the path to de-carbonization as one of its main efforts by launching the Green Deal. Within this framework, the targets include 100 neutral cities globally by 2030 as well as a New European Bauhaus, a large-scale urban regeneration plan on a continental scale. Eventually, the Next Generation EU funds will provide resources and tools to make the ecological transition more ambitious and, at the same time, more achievable. However, only joint commitment between citizens and governance at various levels will ensure a successful ecological transition. It is essential that institutional, social, and private partners collaborate towards a common objective.