Whose lane is it, anyway? Five ways COVID-19 might change city mobility
Jun 3, 2020
Nicholas Sanderson

The pandemic lockdown has changed the way people get around town — changes that may be permanently rewriting the mobility agenda for Canadian cities in a post-COVID era

The pandemic lockdown has changed the way people get around town — changes that may be permanently rewriting the mobility agenda for Canadian cities in a post-COVID era

Efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19 have changed the rhythms of our cities dramatically. Since Prime Minister Trudeau’s instruction to Canadians on March 23 to “Go home and stay home,” downtown office blocks and schools have emptied out, while access to essential services is rationed. Mobility paused but for essentials.

But beyond the short-term, what might the lasting impacts on mobility be? Which changes will stick, and which will revert? Here are five of the puzzles cities and mobility providers are grappling with.

1. The decline of car-centric streets

What cities are demonstrating, the world over, is their confidence in the humble cycle. This was spelled out in a recent op-ed by Toronto councillors Joe Cressy and Mike Layton, written after the city temporarily closed multiple streets to cars. “Opening the streets to cyclists also made more room for pedestrians and people who use mobility devices,” they wrote. “It was a beautiful day, and a sign of what our city could look like as we work to adapt to a new normal.”

With each bike occupying a fifth of the space of a car, mass cycling is seen as a way to provide affordable, emission-free accessibility at a distance. But, as Cressy, Layton and others note, the fight for street space goes beyond cyclists. Line-ups for essential stores require thoughtful allocations of sidewalk real estate alongside the needs of pedestrians and delivery people. Transit operators are also making legitimate claims for dedicated bus lanes to relieve crowding. As commercial restrictions are lifted, expect restaurants and eateries to spill out onto the streets, too.

The drop in vehicle traffic at the start of the stay-home order was for many an unrivalled opportunity to reimagine our streets. But managing the competing pressures for street and curb space will be an ongoing challenge. Once citizens get a taste of the new settlement for streets, it might be hard returning to the way they were.

2. How much working from home will stick?

Social distancing has transferred swaths of service sector workers from purpose-built offices to their homes, along with putting the occupations that support those workers on ice, from food servers to waste collectors, cleaners and security. With so few now travelling to downtowns, the pressure of commuting has shifted from transport infrastructure to digital infrastructure — so much so that Britain’s Automobile Association is arguing for a shift in government spending from roads to broadband

The extent to which working from home will stick is unknown, but it has certainly created appetite for a more flexible working life. The trend to more flexible working may just be expedited, even formalized, by the impact of the virus. Digital giants, such as Canada’s Shopify, have already signalled a long-term move to remote working. Urban planners and architects have long mused over designing better homes for working in, to building networks of co-working spaces expressly for non-commuters. And these ideas may be more readily picked-up from now on.

3. Existential questions for transit

Social distancing has depleted transit supply (far fewer people fit on a bus when they must all be two metres apart), while home-working and fear of infection have cut demand. With transit so substantially reduced, many operating at a tenth or normal capacity, cities face the double threat of increased car-use and slashed fare income.

This is an almost existential challenge for cities that may do lasting damage without major, long-term financial support. City managers and finance ministries are pondering over what form this support takes and who pays — whether through local, provincial or national spending cuts, tax increases or new financial tools, such as congestion charges. This will of course depend on how quickly and under what conditions regular service can resume. Ultimately, this may change the fundamentals of Canadian transit agency funding for better or worse. Like many areas of life, the pandemic has exposed existing frailties.

In the short term, those still reliant on transit not only face greater exposure to the virus, but service cuts or fare increases will have dire impacts on their ability to work or access the city. The focus for many cities has therefore shifted to other modes of transport can keep them moving but socially distanced.

4. Surging sales of e-bikes

As a corollary to our first point, bike sales, including e-bikes or power-assist bicycles, have reportedly surged since mid-March. In Asia and cycle-friendly European countries, they have been popular for some time with transportation networks being redesigned around them including high-speed, high-quality, inter-urban cycle routes between cities. Lessons learned there could now be applied to Canada’s sprawling, low-density metropolitan areas where transit provision traditionally struggles to compete with the car. A recent UK study suggested up to 50 per pent of car use could be switched to e-bikes (with lots of caveats).

5. A bumpy road for shared micro-mobility services

The challenges for transit are seemingly affecting other shared services. For some, COVID is the end of the road for e-scooters while others claim their vital importance for socially distanced transport. It’s a dichotomy reflected in Canada, with Montreal banning them earlier in the year while Calgary is reporting record use. What’s certain is that the pandemic has forced a consolidation of the industry, with strong players scooping-up weakened competitors — witness the US$170-million merger of Uber Jump with Lime, despite the latter pulling out of many cities and laying off staff ahead of COVID shutdowns. 

Ultimately, e-scooter success will be intertwined with how well shared services rebound generally and how welcome cities — whether through space or generous operating terms — choose to make them.

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