By Katherine Farrow, Ioannis Tikoudis and Walid Oueslati, OECD Environment Directorate
In the aftermath of the pandemic, policy makers face unique challenges in managing urban transport, but also an opportunity to steer urban mobility towards a more sustainable, resilient future.
The Covid-19 crisis has caused an unprecedented shock in travel demand, raising questions about the future of transport in the near and long term. Lockdown measures have brought transport activity to a grinding halt in urban areas worldwide in recent months. The dramatic improvements in air quality that ensued highlight the stark trade-offs between transport activity and the environment.
As the first wave of the outbreak starts to recede in a number of countries, two important questions emerge. First, will urban mobility return to pre-outbreak patterns of use, or will the shock have a more profound, long-term impact on how people travel? Second, how should governments respond to these changes in order to continue steering urban transport systems towards sustainability?
Past experience suggests that as the crisis subsides, the amount of travel that takes place in urban areas will gradually return to pre-crisis levels. Following the SARS outbreak in 2003, transport activity returned to previous levels in less than a year. The economic shock of the global financial crisis in 2008 also had a negligible lasting impact on transport habits in US cities.
Preliminary figures show that transport activity is indeed recovering in areas that have lifted lockdown measures. Road traffic in Wuhan, for example, appears to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, and in Korea, activity at transport hubs has nearly returned to 2019 levels. Along with this increase in transport activity comes a rebound in local air pollution and CO2 emissions. In Paris, for example, air pollution levels have already rebounded to 2019 levels.
Even if the total amount of travel returns to pre-crisis levels, the scale and severity of the pandemic could nevertheless lead to lasting shifts in the way in which this travel is undertaken, especially in the absence of a vaccine. Notably, many people may continue to avoid taking public transport to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. Shifting trips from public transport to biking and walking will have positive environmental impacts, and many urban areas are indeed witnessing an increase in non-motorised modes of transport. However, people may also turn to private car use, encouraged by low oil prices and aggressive marketing by car manufacturers in the wake of the crisis.
The net environmental impacts of these shifts remain uncertain. City-specific factors such as the characteristics of its population, the quality of its walking and biking infrastructure, and its geographic layout will play key roles in shaping the relative attractiveness of biking and walking vs. private car use as alternatives to public transport. To the extent that weather conditions influence the uptake of walking and cycling, the timing of the lifting of lockdown measures can also have implications for long-term shifts in mode choices.
To the extent that it is disrupting travel habits in fundamental ways, the Covid-19 crisis can constitute a “moment of change” for personal mobility. As such, it can be considered a unique opportunity for governments to foster a shift towards more sustainable transport habits. Many cities have recognised this opportunity, rapidly expanding bike lanes and providing incentives for travel via low-emission modes.
Governments should continue to strengthen measures to support greater walking and cycling in urban areas, discourage car use, and promote public transport. Building trust in governments’ capacity to manage the public health risks of public transport will be critical in preventing a long-term exodus of ridership. The risk of transmission can be reduced through face mask requirements, disinfection protocols, thermal screening, and contactless payment options. Investing in public transit improvements is also a highly effective green stimulus measure.
While many urban areas have made significant advances in incentivising walking and cycling, fewer have taken steps to strengthen disincentives for private car use. Policies to discourage car travel include those that increase the cost of their ownership and use (e.g. registration fees and distance-based charges), as well as regulatory measures such as urban vehicle access regulations. In areas where few sustainable alternatives to public transport exist, policy makers should consider refining these measures to alleviate distributional effects, as well as exploring new forms of optimised, on-demand shared mobility services.
Finally, creating urban environments that are friendly to non-motorised modes of transport will be critical in facilitating more sustainable transport systems, especially if people remain reluctant to use public transport. Proven policy options for doing so include providing quality infrastructure as well as incentives such as subsidies for the purchase of bicycles.
Despite the evident challenges to greening urban transport during this time, concrete policy responses exist to respond to and influence mobility patterns as demand for urban travel returns to pre-crisis levels. Given the significance of the transport sector for the environment, public health, and societal resilience in the long term, the pursuit of sustainable, inclusive transport systems should remain a strong policy focus as the world emerges from the Covid-19 crisis.
The OECD has issued a number of policy briefs outlining strategies for policy makers to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. These aim to ensure that recovery policies are compatible with a low-carbon transition and to highlight responses to the various uncertainties posed by the pandemic:
Building Back Better: A Sustainable, Resilient Recovery after Covid-19
Environmental Health and Strengthening Resilience to Pandemics
Environmental Responses to Covid-19
What policies for greening the crisis response and economic recovery? Lessons learned from past green stimulus measures and implications for the Covid-19 crisis
Further reading on transport and the environment:
OECD work on The Impact of Urban Road Pricing on the Use of Green Transport Modes
OECD work on Decarbonising Urban Mobility with Land Use and Transport Policies
OECD work on The Rebound Effect in Road Transport
OECD work on The Economic Consequences of Outdoor Air Pollution
OECD project on Spatial Planning INstruments and the Environment (SPINE)