For many cities, the transportation changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic bring both promise and concern from a sustainability standpoint.
On one hand, cycling, an efficient mode endorsed by the World Health Organization for COVID safety, has increased worldwide; global transportation emissions have declined since the onset of the pandemic. On the other hand, reports suggest worrying trends such as an increase in driving among urban residents, and, significantly, a sharp decline in big cities’ public transit ridership of 80 percent or more.
Globally, transportation produces a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions, especially in urban places. Among C40 member cities, for example, transport generates about one third of carbon emissions, and in the United States, transport routinely tops the list of most polluting sectors. Though onset of the pandemic led to declines in transportation emissions, these emissions will surely shoot up as places recover.
Whether cities can build more sustainable mobility systems largely depends on the future of the ‘modal mix’ – the percentage of trips occurring on various transportation modes, whether bikes, trains, buses or cars. The future modal mix, in turn, is likely to be shaped by two unsettled factors: first, the willingness of city governments to engage in ambitious policy initiatives, and second, the resilience of traditional mass transit.
Emboldened Mayors and Urban Policymakers
One oft-noted trend during the pandemic has been a new willingness by mayors and cities to seize control of transportation policy and experiment with ambitious urban planning programs. This trend has been registered in multiple policy areas, ranging from street management to sustainable mobility subsidies and free public transit.
For instance, the city of Paris committed to building 650km of pop-up bike lanes at the beginning of the pandemic, attracting international attention, to which Mayor Anne Hidalgo added a further €300 million to upgrade the city’s existing bike network.
Other cities have embarked on similar projects, including Brussels, Seattle, Oakland, and Montreal, among others. Remaking streets – often a drawn-out, controversial process – has in many places become quicker and easier than ever.
Nevertheless, some of these efforts have drawn pushback from some residents, particularly Black and Brown communities in the US, who have shed light on the historic exclusion of their communities from the urban policymaking process. Additionally, many “open streets” efforts appear less revolutionary than anticipated: often, their purpose has been to create outdoor space for struggling restaurants rather than to substantial alter the transportation network.
However, for cities that have often struggled to implement relatively modest changes to their urban landscape (such as the addition of new bike lane networks) these efforts represent a newfound potential for mayors to adopt a more proactive, robust approach to transportation policy which engages with and reflects the needs of residents.
The Future of Mass Transit
Though the world has witnessed a sharp decline in mass transit ridership since the beginning of the pandemic, many city residents still rely on public transport, including essential workers, low-income residents, and those without other means of transportation.
Moreover, surveys have shown that transit remains especially essential for marginalized groups. In Chicago, for example, one study found ridership in ‘L’ metro stops in affluent, white neighborhoods declined 90 percent or more, while ridership across working-class and low-income minority areas declined only 40 to 60 percent.
This decline is concerning for two reasons. First, mass transit continues to be the lifeblood of cities: it is essential for their overall activity and for residents who depend on it to get around. It is also a particularly efficient and sustainable way to move large numbers of people in a relatively small, confined space. It follows that even with a small portion of transit trips getting permanently replaced by car trips, the ramifications for carbon emissions, city operations, and social equity in a post-pandemic world could be devastating.
Second, the decline is driving concerns about a potential transit “death spiral”: falling ridership rates could lead to decreased funding, which would then lead to poorer service, a further drop in ridership rates, further reduced funding, and even worse service.
This phenomenon raises crucial questions around the future of post-COVID mass transit. How will future rush hours compare to those before the pandemic, considering the possibility that a number of workers might continue working from home? How will transit systems adapt to what could be an altered urban geography, with growing activity in peripheral neighborhoods and declining activity in downtown areas?
Already, transit agencies are investing considerable resources in making transit safer, from mandating masks to improving ventilation and sanitizing practices. With support from urban and national leaders, they must make transit continue to be useful and essential for residents.
Crucially, the viability of sustainable transportation – as well as the sustainability of cities themselves – depends on the willingness of cities and transit operators to adapt to new circumstances by launching initiatives that will improve service and attract large numbers of riders.
After all, a future of urban mobility without transit at its center is unlikely to be sustainable for cities, for residents, and for the planet.
Without proper intervention, the pandemic may indefinitely replace a number of shared transit trips with private car trips. To counter this, cities, mayors, and transit agencies can adopt the following two approaches if they wish to ensure a sustainable future for their citizens.
First, they can embrace rapid, ambitious policy experimentation that keeps pace with the rate of urban change and that matches the scale of the challenge. Such experimentation should not bypass public engagement; rather it should encourage it by launching temporary programs, soliciting feedback, and adapting projects to residents’ needs.
Additionally, there is significant room for improvement: though dozens of cities have experimented with COVID cycling programs, for example, many of these programs were inconsequential. Many other cities failed to implement new programs at all. Engaging with the private sector, for instance, can help cities to quickly develop and implement new transportation solutions that meet residents’ needs.
Second, they can endorse mass transit as a critical tool for the revival of post-pandemic urban life, as many city leaders already have, improving health, safety, and public confidence in transit. Ensuring that transit remains a relevant and vibrant part of a city’s urban landscape – whatever form it might assume following the end of the pandemic – can serve as the foundation for a long-term shift towards a more sustainable modal mix.