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Urban Planning, Environment and Health

Mobility & COVID-19: How Should We Redesign Transport for a New Future?

Series | COVID-19 & Response Strategy #6


This document is part of a series of discussion notes addressing fundamental questions about the COVID-19 crisis and response strategies. These documents are based on the best scientific information available and may be updated as new information comes to light.

Written by Carolyn Daher, Manel Ferri, Guillem Vich, Maria Foraster, Sarah Koch, Glòria Carrasco, Sasha Khomenko, Sergio Baraibar, Laura Hidalgo and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, on behalf of ISGlobal's Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative, tackles mobility during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue that has a significant impact on health. Cities and people must take urgent actions now that are linked to longer-term change. 

Active transportation and the provision of enough public space for citizens to move while maintaining physical distance should be top priorities. Better use of technology to manage mobility and clear communication about the options available in the transport network will reduce fear and promote rational use of transport. The choice of type of transport should be based on transmission risk, health and environmental impacts, and access and use of space.


The relationship between health and mobility has multiple dimensions. Particularly in urban areas, motorized traffic causes most of the air pollution and noise, which are the two main environmental threats to health.

Mobility has been drastically altered by the COVID-19 crisis. Confinement, teleworking, and mobility restrictions have had multiple impacts, sometimes paradoxical, on daily mobility. Cycling and walking have also increased, in part due to the low risk of transmission, and proximity purchases have reduced the length of journeys. The use of public transport has plummeted as a consequence of the fear of a high risk of transmission.

What are the main impacts on health in terms of mobility in relation to COVID-19?

Atmospheric pollution

Motorized traffic in cities is the main source of atmospheric pollution, especially particulate matter with a diameter less than or equal to 2.5 mm (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Globally, outdoor air causes more than four million deaths a year. A relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 disease is beginning to be detected.


Regular exposure to environmental noise contributes to persistent stress and discomfort, sleep disturbances and, in the long term, causes chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Traffic is usually the main cause of noise in Spanish cities. The confinement by COVID-19 has led to huge reductions in noise levels in cities around the world

Physical activity

Urban and transport planning influences the levels of physical activity of citizens. Sedentary lifestyle is the fourth risk factor for mortality globally, and is associated with 6% of deaths worldwide. Facilitating physical activity is an even more urgent health need during a pandemic to minimize negative impacts on our health.

How can mobility contribute to the management of COVID-19?

Urban and mobility planners must protect public health by facilitating mobility that enables citizens to meet their basic needs as safely as possible. Cities can lead the way for the development and evaluation of strategies through social, tactical and technological policies and interventions.

What are the requirements for mobility during COVID-19 and beyond?

Redistribute public space to prioritize active mobility. We should take advantage of the fact that, with reductions of between 60% and 90% of motorized travel, a large part of public space has been freed up; take advantage of it to prioritize active mobility and dedicate large spaces to bicycle and pedestrian use. This would allow the safe incorporation of new users and enable an increase in the number of trips made by current users. Walking or cycling are the two healthiest, most sustainable and equitable transportation options that meet the requirement of guaranteeing social distance.

For many people, including essential workers, public transportation is the only viable option for daily mobility. However, it is precisely the benefits that public transport offers under normal conditions that imply health risks during the pandemic. Local governments and traffic authorities must work together to provide a sufficient level of service while maintaining security conditions.

Encourage the rational use of private vehicles, taxis and shared vehicle services. Taxis and carpooling services, such as Uber and Cabify, offer a more flexible option to people who may require car use, especially to the most vulnerable population groups such as the elderly.

Use technology to manage and program mobility. Technology is a fundamental asset for mobility management, and it is underused. Mobile device applications can help citizens find optimal routes and suggest alternatives to avoid over-occupation.

What are the immediate actions?

In the short term, measures should be implemented to expand the space allocated to active means of transport, in combination with the management of public space, so as to ensure distance and fight the spread of COVID-19. These strategies promote a healthier lifestyle, while reducing impacts on health and the environment. In the long term, these changes can be consolidated. The measures mentioned below, although not exhaustive, are being implemented in different cities worldwide.

Public space and active transport

  • Promote active transport as the main means of transport on short journeys
  • Enable bicycle and / or walkable lanes
  • Implement priority at bicycle and pedestrian traffic lights to avoid crowds
  • Eliminate traffic lights on demand for pedestrians
  • Support trade related to bicycles and VMP
  • Accelerate urban transformations that recover public space, such as the Barcelona superblocks

Public transport: bus, metro and train

  • Expand frequencies, especially at peak times
  • Continuously clean and disinfect and distribute masks on site
  • Organize the metro service by appointment to control the capacity
  • Offer demand management services to low-density areas with shared taxis linked to public transport operators
  • Implement priority traffic lights for buses and segregated lanes with the aim of increasing commercial speed and frequencies
  • Get on and off the bus, as well as validate the ticket, through rear doors

Private transport

  • Reduce the speed of traffic on the streets
  • Reduce car parking space and remove motorcycles from sidewalks
  • Activate low emission areas
  • Link transport by taxis and vehicles for shared use with public transport management.