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Over the past decade, public investment and public private partnerships (PPPs) have been used to create well-integrated and energy-efficient urban transport systems, and this has been justified by the economic inefficiencies created by usage of private vehicles, such as traffic congestion and deterioration in the air quality of cities. London has, for example, exceeded legal limits of air pollution since 2010, due to harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) generated by diesel cars. Along these lines, transport appraisal methods, pioneered by Great Britain since last century, have driven decision-makers to steer structural funds towards more equitable, healthier and greener mobility solutions. 

Last February, a few days before the coronavirus outbreak in the Western world, the International Transport Forum released a report which, among other things, highlighted the emerging change in transport demand. The ever-growing consciousness of environment and urban quality of life have been drivers in encouraging a significant shift away from private vehicles through an increased supply of public transport and the implementation of bike-share programmes. 

After two months, this trend appears to be undermined by the coronavirus crisis. As the overcrowding in urban buses and underground carriages has already been proven to be a crucial driver in the spread of influenza-like diseases, there could be a greater use of personal cars to enable travel while maintaining social distancing measures. 

However, since only essential workers have had to commute to reach their workplace, the level of motor traffic congestion and air pollution has still seen a massive decline: the scenario that played out during this period was unimaginable a few weeks ago. The drastic lockdown rules, working from home and, in some cases, the shutdown of industrial activities has resulted in a huge drop of greenhouse gas emissions – e.g. nitrogen dioxide (NO2) decreased by between 14 and 47 percent in London. The lockdown enforced by governments worldwide has bought them time to draw up a number of strategies to cope with a pandemic while still addressing climate change and the environment. 

The current trade-off that we are seeing, where drastically reduced human activity has led to cleaner air, does not imply that a win-win solution on air pollution is not feasible in the coming future. The considerable economic and social damage posed by an unprecedented crisis like this should be the turning point to enable a ‘better normal’ and marks an end to ‘business as usual’. 

Furthermore, some research suggests that air pollution is a contributing risk factor to COVID-19 deaths in certain geographic areas. In Milan, and on a more extensive scale, in the industrial cluster of Northern Italy, people with long-term exposure to high-level pollutants, like the nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are more prone to develop chronic respiratory conditions. This is only a further reason to rethink urban transport networks.

The path to not go back to soul-crushing levels of traffic congestion and prevent the risk of exposure to the virus is straightforward: encouraging cycling and walking. Emergency cycle lanes, also named ‘corona cycleways’, have promptly been implemented by local authorities of major cities across the globe to reallocate part of existing road space for biking – an effective solution for longer journeys. These low-cost measures have required the use of available ‘assets’, such as traffic cones and temporary road markers. On the other side, by lowering speed limits for motor vehicles through ‘slow streets’ measures, roads have been secured for pedestrians.

With the easing of lockdown, permanent, sustainable and greener approaches will be required to shape low-carbon mobility. Milan, one of the cities hit hardest by the virus pandemic, announced its ‘Strade Aperte’ scheme, aimed to lower private car use by converting 35 kilometres of streets to cycling and walking. A similar response plan has been drawn up for London (StreetSpace), which already has a developed cycling network, to address the reduced public transport capacity.

On a nationwide level, fiscal incentives to bring about a change in behaviour towards bicycles, e-bikes and electric scooters might be necessary to make biking infrastructures effective. Implemented by the British government since 1999, the cycle-to-work scheme, which allows employees to claim a tax credit on bikes purchased to commute to work, could lay the groundwork for more extensive programmes: the inclusion of self-employed people, but also students targeted through a representative body. Across Europe, in cities such as Oslo, Luxembourg and Paris, a subsidy for the purchase of a new bicycle or electrically-assisted bicycle is already available – up to €500. 

Although shared micro-mobility services, as bicycle rental schemes, dockless bike share and electric scooters, have been suspended in some cities during the lockdown, their future integration via physical infrastructures, ticket and information systems with public transport fleets will be an essential step to create valuable and seamless intermodal transport networks. 

By passing such investment and policy measures, restarting urban mobility will help to encourage both a greener economy and an improvement of public health. Hence, it is time to seize a once-in-a-lifetime policy opportunity.

Anna is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.