Movilidad y COVID-19, ahora y en un nuevo futuro

Mobility and COVID-19: The Present and the New Future

04.12.2020
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Photo: Mònica Moreno / Barcelona City Council - A cyclist circulates through the expansion of the space for bicycles in Pau Claris street in Barcelona.

[This article has been originally published in Catalan in 'Espai Salut' newsletter of Diputació de Barcelona]

[Authors: Carolyn Daher (coordinator of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Iniciative at ISGlobal), Guillem Vich (researcher at ISGlobal) and Oriol Marquet (researcher in the Mobility, Transport and Territory Research Group at the Autonomous University of Barcelona)]

Facilitating and managing mobility in cities and metropolitan areas is an already complex challenge made even more daunting this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in urban areas, where it is difficult for people to get around while practising physical distancing.

Lockdown measures, telecommuting and travel restrictions have affected everyday mobility in a number of ways. Data from smartphone apps indicate that people drastically reduced their movements during the state of emergency. Cars and motorcycles were initially promoted as modes of transport compatible with physical distancing. Active transport—cycling, walking, etc.—increased significantly in urban areas, while public transport ridership plummeted. The degree to which mobility patterns have returned to normal since lockdown was lifted varies from one mode of transport to the next. While private vehicle use has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, other modes of transport, including public transport, continue to see significant reductions.

The links between COVID-19 and urban mobility offer opportunities for immediate and long-term health benefits. Collaboration across different sectors would make it possible to minimise private motor vehicle use, restore confidence in the use of public transport and promote active transport, thereby making cities more sustainable, equitable, liveable and healthy.

 

How Does COVID-19 Affect Mobility-Related Health Risks? The relationship between health and mobility is well demonstrated and multifaceted. Car-centric urban planning is the main source of air pollution and noise. It also contributes to the heat island effect, encourages sedentary habits and leads to a lack of green space.

Motor-vehicle traffic in urban areas contributes significantly to outdoor air pollution, which has many negative health impacts at every stage of life.

In many cities around the world, air pollution levels have fallen during the pandemic as a consequence of lockdown measures, reduced economic activity and decreased mobility. However, long-term reductions are needed to achieve significant health benefits. The current crisis has shown that major reductions in urban air pollution levels are possible and that motor-vehicle traffic is the main source of this pollution.

We have a critical opportunity to make long-lasting positive changes for health through more active, inclusive and sustainable urban mobility solutions

We have a critical opportunity to make long-lasting positive changes for health through more active, inclusive and sustainable urban mobility solutions. Noise is one of the most important environmental factors affecting human health. In Europe, noise is the second most harmful environmental risk. The main source of urban noise in Catalonia is usually motor-vehicle traffic, followed by trains and airplanes, both inside and outside of cities. In Barcelona specifically, noise from motor vehicles contributes to 36% of illnesses related to urban planning and transport, making noise the leading environmental health risk.

During lockdown, traffic and recreation noise fell sharply, showing that quieter cities are indeed possible. In the first week of lockdown, noise levels decreased by more than 9 dB compared to the 2019 average in Barcelona. Even so, short-term reductions are not enough to improve health, since the most significant noise-related health effects are caused by long-term exposure. It is crucial that cities take noise-related impacts into account when planning mobility in order to comply with the requirements of the European Commission and the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

 

Photo: Martí Petit / Barcelona City Council

 

Urban transport planning influences the physical activity levels of city residents. Sedentary lifestyles are the fourth largest mortality risk factor globally and are associated with 6% of deaths worldwide. In light of the pandemic, physical activity is more important than ever, given its capacity to minimise the negative impacts of the current crisis. The many health benefits of physical activity include an enhanced immune function and a stabilising effect on mental health—both factors known to be particularly affected by COVID-19 and the associated lockdown measures. Therefore, it is more important than ever to have options for engaging in physical activity through active mobility and access to outdoor spaces and natural areas.

Physical activity fell dramatically during lockdown. According to data published by Google, on 12 April 2020, visits to parks in Spain were down by 89% compared to 15 February 2020. According to Apple, on 18 April 2020, Spaniards walked 87% less than on 13 January of the same year. These data are particularly notable in light of the fact that small increases or decreases in physical activity levels can have a major impact on public health. ISGlobal’s policy document on mobility and COVID-19 provides further information on this issue.

Urban mobility can have a significant effect on health, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Urban mobility can have a significant effect on health, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. To better accommodate evolving scenarios, urban planning measures should focus on facilitating everyday mobility. The priority should be to promote active transport and provide enough public space for people to move around while practising physical distancing. Better use of technology to manage mobility and clear communication about the available transport options can help to assuage fears and encourage rational transport use.

The priority should be to promote active transport and provide enough public space for people to move around while practising physical distancing

This requires proactive protective measures and effective collaboration between different sectors, in concert with society at large. Urban and transport planners have a key role to play in promoting and protecting public health by facilitating mobility that allows people to meet their basic needs in the safest possible way. Cities can lead the way in testing and implementing social, tactical and technological policies and interventions.

We need to reallocate Public Space to Prioritise Active Mobility Wherever Possible. In many cities, most public space is dedicated to motor-vehicle traffic. Now more than ever, we need this space for other uses. During the acute phase of the pandemic, the volume of motor-vehicle traffic dropped by 60%-90%, freeing up considerable public space. Cities should take advantage of this decrease to prioritise active mobility and devote large areas to bicycles and pedestrians, thus safely absorbing the new ranks of active travellers and allowing current active travellers to make more journeys and enjoy numerous health benefits.

Walking and cycling are the two healthiest, most sustainable and most equitable options that guarantee social distancing. Scooters and other personal mobility devices are also becoming more common and must be regulated as we develop an understanding of their benefits and limitations. Many cities have already started upgrading their road infrastructure to promote active transport. Whenever possible, local journeys should be prioritised for everyday activities and services. Infrastructure for active school transport should also be established and promoted.

Walking and cycling are the two healthiest, most sustainable and most equitable options that guarantee social distancing

Private vehicles offer a practical and comfortable mobility solution that guarantees physical distancing. However, encouraging the use of private vehicles as the main mobility solution during the COVID-19 pandemic would have significant negative health impacts in both the short and long term. In the short term, cities that were already clogged with traffic before the pandemic would struggle to increase the number of vehicles on the road. Moreover, an increase in the number of private vehicles would limit the space available for active transport. In the long term, promoting the use of private vehicles for the sake of physical distancing would degrade the sustainability of the city and damage residents’ health.

Taxis and ride-sharing services offer a more flexible option for people who may need to use cars—especially more vulnerable populations, such as older adults. If implemented efficiently and in coordination with local governments, these services can be a viable option that will minimise the need for car ownership.

Public transport is essential for urban mobility in most mid-size or large cities. For many people, including essential workers, public transport is the main option—and the only economically viable one—for everyday mobility. Local governments and traffic authorities must work together to guarantee a sufficient and continuous level of service.

Some members of the public associate public transport with rising rates of infection. In many urban areas around the world, people have even blamed public transport for the rapid spread of COVID-19. While it is true that public transport often brings many people together in cramped, enclosed spaces and involves sharing surfaces that can facilitate disease transmission—e.g. door handles and grab bars—the available data do not suggest that this has happened with COVID-19.

 

Photo: Mariona Gil / Barcelona City Council

 

Although the body of evidence on public transport and the spread of COVID-19 is limited, studies in France, Japan, Austria and the United States so far have not found any significant connection between outbreaks and public transport when preventive measures are taken. In contrast, an outbreak in China related to a long-distance bus journey underscores the crucial role of management and preventive measures.

Key strategies for making public transport safer include reducing the number of riders per bus or metro/train car, requiring masks at all times, and increasing the frequency of service and cleaning. Measures to help people combine different modes of transport—i.e. combining bicycles or personal mobility devices with public transport—can also help reduce the number of riders on the first and last legs of longer journeys.

Although the body of evidence on public transport and the spread of COVID-19 is limited, studies in France, Japan, Austria and the United States so far have not found any significant connection between outbreaks and public transport when preventive measures are taken

Technology is a crucial yet underutilised asset for mobility management. Smartphone apps can help people find optimal routes and suggest alternatives to prevent overcrowding. For example, apps can alert people to congested streets in real time. They can also be used to plan trips on public transport in advance, making it possible to limit occupancy. Payment apps can also be used to avoid having to touch ticket machines in stations or on buses.

Telecommuting and more flexible working hours can help to ease rush-hour traffic. Encouraging local shopping that can be accessed using active transport will also help. Online shopping can further reduce individual travel; however, the delivery of goods needs to be coordinated and the “last mile” should preferably be done using active and sustainable modes of transport.

In the long term, other policy and structural changes can help to ensure that mobility remains active and sustainable. Relevant and necessary actions include carrying out studies on the usage and externalities associated with active and sustainable transport, encouraging the use of active transport for commuting to work, and creating a national cycling office. Changes of this sort will help to improve people’s health, curb climate change and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Recommendations:

  • Up to 5 km: walk, ride a bicycle or use a personal mobility device.
  • Up to 10 km: ride a bicycle (or an electric bicycle, to go even farther).
  • Longer journeys: use low-occupancy public transport.
  • In towns and villages without access to other modes of transport: use cars and motorcycles.