The impact of COVID-19 has been acutely felt in cities around the world, transforming all aspects of city life, including how goods and people travel. Initial lockdowns caused a dramatic decrease in passenger travel in cities, which has slowly rebounded, but continues to be below pre-pandemic levels, as people continue to work from home (where possible) or have become unemployed due to the impacts of the pandemic and no longer travel to work. There has also been a significant uptick in urban deliveries in some cities, as residents have replaced in-store shopping with online orders.
Travel preferences have also been changing, as health concerns have overtaken cost, convenience and time considerations. (McKinsey) For example, as fears over contagion of COVID-19 on shared forms of mobility mounted, public transport and rail ridership fell substantially across the world's regions in the first months of the crisis. (Washington Post) Many urban dwellers who were able switched to individual forms of transport, including biking, walking, and private vehicle use for their mobility needs. (Euractiv) In China, for example, car use increased substantially from pre-pandemic levels (ITDP), creating new challenges for cities.
In response to these significant shifts in travel behavior, cities have shown their agility, making dynamic policy decisions including a number of immediate, often temporary measures to ensure that people and goods are able to safely travel within city boundaries (e.g. through farm-to-market rolling stores in the Philippines).
Among these measures include a reallocation of public space, in many cases restricting car use on streets in order to make room for an increase in biking and walking (e.g. through temporary pedestrian zones in Kenya). This is happening in more than 100 cities across the world. (COVID Mobility Works)
For additional information on how cities have been at the forefront of responding to the impacts of COVID-19 on urban mobility, please see public transport, cycling, walking, informal transport, and freight transport, as covered elsewhere in the gTKP.
Citizens have also seen the benefits of reduced traffic and improved air quality, especially apparent when lockdowns eased and high levels of air pollution returned, as has been the case in Delhi and a number of other cities around the world. This has raised awareness among policymakers of the need to rethink transport policies that exacerbate pollution, such as favouring car use over other, more sustainable and accessible forms of transport.
There have also been more far-sighted responses to the pandemic, including new land use policies prioritising accessibility. In the popular “15-minute city” concept, job opportunities, services, and recreational spaces are clustered in multiple points within a city, enabling residents to meet their needs within 15 minutes of their homes on foot, by bike, or on public transport. Similar concepts have been highlighted in EcoMobility Festivals in Korea, South Africa and Taiwan (ICLEI), which transform a neighborhood or business district into a carfree and ecomobile area for a month, demonstrating the possibilities of an innovative and forward-thinking urban mobility culture. These demonstrations take on new relevance in the face of COVID-19 related urban mobility challenges, and have the potential to be replicated in cities across the Global South to increase post-pandemic resilience.
This section was developed by SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport with contributions from the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP).