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The mobility revolution after Covid-19

Since the Covid-19 lockdown, public transport and sharing services in particular have lost users, while at the same time the car is celebrating its return to the urban streets. Carlo Ratti, architect, urban planner and director of the Senseable Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explains in the following short interview how the mobility revolution can nevertheless succeed.

Carlo Ratti

Q – During the lockdown, the streets were almost empty (in Germany), people walked or took their bike instead, air pollution was reduced drastically. And most people were very happy with that. What does this experience do to people?

CR – “Never let a good crisis go to waste” – famously said former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. What have we learnt from the pandemic so far? I would say that a key lesson is that we can be more audacious in urban innovation – i.e. in how we reprogramme our cities. I am not sure if all the interesting conditions that we all appreciated during the lockdown would stay with us in the long term – but I hope that our willingness to be experimental will not go away.

Q – At the same time, shared mobility and public transport have lost users – and the car made a comeback. Is corona accelerating new mobility or is the pandemic slowing it down?

CR – There will be a transition phase during which we will have to co-exist with the virus. During this time, shared vehicles and mass transit might suffer. But at some point – hopefully soon – we will move past the virus and proximity between people will not be an issue anymore.

Hence I am optimistic that the long term effects of coronavirus could accelerate the adoption of more sustainable mobility patterns, which have been in the making over the last few years. Many municipalities around the world have come to the conclusion that a mobility system relying heavily on private cars is socially and environmentally untenable – not to mention the fact that air pollution seems to have been one of the factors which magnified mortality during the outbreak!

Milan, one of Europe’s first big city seriously affected by the outbreak, has started to implement plans to widen bike paths and impose a lower speed limit. While things might still take time to develop, such actions will certainly initiate healthy conversations about the city of tomorrow.

Q – The streets are getting crowded again, but mobility solutions like shared mobility and public transport, which supposedly offer too little distance to others, still have fewer passengers than before. How should they react to become more attractive again?

CR – As we were saying, during this period where we co-exist with the virus, we need social distancing – there are no easy ways to achieve that with mass transit. It is not the same for micro-mobility, like shared e-scooters to bikes, which offers a substantial advantage: it allows people to avoid close contacts with strangers, while being much more sustainable environmentally than a private car. The risk that comes with a vehicle being used from one person to the other can easily be addressed with gloves or a bit of disinfectant.

Q – Working from home has become more established in many companies around the world since the outbreak of Covid-19. What is the relevance of remote and digital work on the needs of mobility?

CR – In the 1970s, urban theorist Melvin Webber predicted that “for the first time in history, it might be possible to locate on a mountain top and to maintain intimate, real-time, and realistic contact with business or other associates”. Has his dream come true? Are we all going to be remote working as suggested by twitter CEO Jack Dorsey? I do not think so. The physical, communal workplace still offers a crucial advantage, that is, introducing us to new connections and job opportunities, and more importantly, exposing us to new thoughts and ideas – in what sociologists sometimes call ‘weak ties’.

Still, some ‘bad habits’ might disappear. Like many others, in the past I have at times been forced to fly from New York to Singapore or Hong Kong, spend a few hours there for a business meeting, and fly back. Such behaviour isn’t healthy at all – neither for the environment nor for a person’s well-being! I hope that in a few months’ time the world’s newly acquired confidence with virtual channels will put such travel patterns to rest.

Q – What do we have to do now to use the corona experience to change traffic and mobility, especially in our cities, in the long term?

CR – I believe we have to keep the conversation open – and continue making our cities testbeds for experimentation. We are seeing the first glimpses of new mobility systems – based on autonomy, sharing, pervasive multi-modality, new vehicle form factors and real-time digital platforms. As citizens and public administrators we need to allow healthy innovation cycles to develop, to move our cities into the future.

This article was first published in the Mobility & Logistics News of Messe Frankfurt, and reproduced with their permission.

Carlo Ratti is currently also the co-chair of the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization of the World Economic Forum and special adviser on urban innovation to the President and Commissioners of the European Commission.