One of the prevailing narratives of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has caused travel to grind to a halt. But that statement is overly simple. Because while international travel may have dropped off, most of us are still on the move – just not in the same ways we previously were.
Cities have experienced the biggest change, with more people working from home. The beating hearts of many cities are struggling in the short term, but the pandemic has also accelerated transport trends that were already breaking through. In the long term, cities – and people – could be in better shape for it.
As part of the CNN series Road to the Future, anchor and correspondent Bianca Nobilo sat down with key figures to ask what’s next for urban transport. Here are some takeaways, edited for length and clarity.
The pandemic has allowed cities to tick off their transport wish lists
Asutosh Padhi, senior partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company: Covid-19 has been a great inflection point. Over 150 cities around the world took advantage of the pandemic to go back and do things that they already always wanted to do. They created more bike lanes, for example. They’ve created more incentives for e-scooters, mopeds and other forms of what we call micromobility, which is cheaper, cleaner and safer.
Micromobility is going big in cities …
Glenn Lyons, professor of future mobility, University of the West of England: I think micromobility has the prospect of being transformational in our cities. It unlocks the opportunity for traveling further than you can on foot or by bike, and therefore it increases the range between our homes and transit stops, enabling us to engage in longer-distance travel.
Isabel Dedring, global transport leader at design and engineering company Arup: The new mobility providers are going to play a much bigger role in moving people around cities – partly because consumers want to use them, but partly because they’re also designed for those small-scale, multipoint movements. There has been a gap that has traditionally been filled by cars.
… and there’s big money to be made for disruptors
ID: These new business models have been a grenade going off in the middle of an industry that hasn’t changed radically in the last 50 to 100 years.
AP: On the profits, the traditional automotive industry globally is about $2.5 trillion. It took 100 years to get to this point. If you look at revenues from new mobility services, we expect that in the next 10 years they will touch roughly $1.5 trillion. It’s going to be a massive profit opportunity.
Electric vehicles will continue to boom, thanks to consumers and aided by governments
AP: We started to see a surge in electric vehicle sales last year in Europe. Governments have swung into action with fiscal stimulus around the world, and in every single one of those packages there is a move towards electric vehicles. By 2030 we expect that roughly a third of the new car sales globally are going to be electric.
Autonomous vehicles will likely make cities their last stop, but assisted driving will be a heavy presence
ID: The urban environment is the last frontier for autonomy, because the complexity of decision making in an urban environment is so many orders of magnitude greater than the complexity of a motorway environment, for example.
AP: Our expectation is that ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) is going to have a massive impact. In the next 10 years, roughly about two out of every three cars sold will have some level of driver assistance – that means lane change, that means parking assist.
City planners are also thinking post-car
ID: Eighty percent of public space in most cities is the road network. How we use that space and how we allocate that space is changing.
AP: We are starting to see cities that are saying in certain areas they don’t want any private vehicles. There are also cities asking how they can start to repurpose a lot of the parking space that currently gets occupied. That’s prime real estate; how can that be repurposed into more productive assets?
Big data is helping urban planners make more specific interventions
AP: The bigger opportunities for cities is around how they take advantage of all the technology that’s coming in to address congestion. Our estimate is that it’s worth two to five points of GDP growth on an annual basis.
ID: With everyone having mobile phones in their pockets, we have an unprecedented opportunity to design our transport networks around what people actually want.
There’s no going back to the old ways …
ID: We’ve looked at what happens when we have big disruptions to movement (historically) – whether that’s volcanic ash or a railway breaking down. Most of that movement comes back; you get a revival of 80%, 90% or 95% of that movement. But it doesn’t all come back, because people find different ways of moving around the city.
… and the planet will be grateful for that
GL: Political nervousness about economic recovery makes it all too easy to look to tried and tested ways of behaving, which will put us in crash course collision with dealing with climate change.
AP: The direction of travel is going to be greener and it’s going to be good for the environment. Whether it is good enough, I think the debate remains, but in general we are very bullish and very optimistic about the future of mobility.