Future urban mobility post Covid-19

V Sumantran | Updated on May 21, 2020

Cities need to steer ‘Mobility as a Service’ that can be accessed by commuters. Pedestrians, bicyclists, e-bikers, all must be accommodated alongside public transit

In this concluding piece on the impact of Covid-19, we look beyond automobiles and examine how cities and societies will reshape urban mobility. The auto industry has been anticipating its transformation by adopting electrification, data connectivity, and technologies for driver-less cars. It was understood that these steps would likely lead to a future where commuters will routinely access Mobility as a Service (MaaS).


Automakers have been wary of this future, since they risk introducing an intermediary like Uber between themselves and their customers. Furthermore, they are not convinced they can be profitable in this very different arena of commerce. Yet, they seem powerless to swim against the tide. Over the last two decades, local societies and city administrators have become much more assertive in shaping the form of mobility that may serve them best. When Stuttgart, the birthplace of Rudolf Diesel shuns diesel cars, you know we have turned the page to a new era.

The urban century

This evolution has been motivated by the need to realign mobility architecture to suit ever more densely populated urban spaces. In 1900, one of every six inhabitants was urban; by 2050, it is expected that four of every six will be urban. The social and economic advantages that cities bestow on residents explains the magnetism of urbanisation.

As population agglomeration accelerated, cars have been crowded out as expensive real estate may be more profitably employed for entertainment, commerce and housing. Even in the US, where the car is revered as a necessity, New Yorkers show little inclination to become car owners.

Most major cities around the world had embarked on rejuvenation of their centres along with regulations for cleaner air and limitations to vehicular traffic. City administrators logically sought to prioritise allocation of public resources to those transportation systems that scored favourably on the metrics of commuter accessibility, capital efficiency, operating economics, urban space demands, and environmental impact.

Pedestrian walkways and bike lanes emerged along with new parks and public spaces. For the same reason that office tower blocks dominate city centres, mass transit (buses, trams, light rail, metros, etc.) was prioritised — it offered the capacity to move a lot of people within a limited amount of space and with a correspondingly lower cost and environmental impact. Public transport, often subsidised and sometimes free, was priced to lure car commuters. At the same time, higher cost for parking and congestion taxes discouraged users of personal cars.

Innovative entrepreneurs quickly climbed on to the bandwagon with apps that could summon a ride, share a journey, or rent a bike or scooter. Other apps — journey planners — could help the digitally savvy commuter synthesise a multi-modal journey across town, customised to his or her preferences for speed, privacy, expense, and carbon footprint.

In the midst of this transformation, our society was blindsided by Covid-19.

Covid-19 impact

Despite its unparalleled impact on human society and global economics, this will not be the last pandemic or natural disaster we will face in this century. Covid’s primary mechanism of contagion is contact and proximity. The very key factor that led to the success of cities — people congregating in close proximity to one another for social and economic benefits — is now emerging as an unexpected source of serious health risk. Social distancing guidelines will require allocation of more space around a person whether at work or during commutes.


Transit systems, buses and even ride sharing have all been built around the concept of efficiently sharing the space and sharing the economic asset. UK Transport Minister Grant Shapps has voiced his concern that the mere act of widening the personal-zone around each occupant in public transit will result in a significant loss of capacity and seriously erode financial viability.

If cities fail to provide acceptable alternate modes of travel, they risk following the path too often seen in emerging economies, where transit infrastructure is inadequate and commuters are forced to fend for themselves with less efficient, more polluting alternatives. Already, in parts of China, car-use in the still recovering economy has surpassed pre-Covid levels as commuters shun public transit to maintain social-distancing. They appear willing to accept traffic congestion and longer travel times in the process. The collapse of oil prices has only served to increase the appeal of personal car-use. If this reverse migration away from public transit to personal cars continues, cities will become unliveable due to congestion and unhealthy air.

Cities need to go back to their toolbox for more tools.

Weaving active lifestyles into travel

Over the past decade, cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen had done much to lift the image and appeal of bicycles. In the latter city, 45 per cent of commuters travel by bicycle. According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, “Many Londoners have rediscovered the joys of walking and cycling during lockdown. By quickly and cheaply widening pavements, creating temporary cycle lanes and closing roads to through traffic we will enable millions more people to change the way they get around our city.”

Post-Covid, many European cities have taken the cue and bike lanes have been expanded in Germany, France, England, Italy and Scotland. Paris is opening an additional 650-km of bike paths along with temporary “corona-cycleways”. The UK is allocating an additional £250 million to promote “active travel” covering pedestrian and bike paths.

A city’s mobility architecture cannot be solved with quick-fix solutions or fancy slogans. Cities have learned that mobility architectures must be structured to be resilient like the internet — with redundant solutions, multiple modes, and multiplicity of routes. In addition, they must meet society’s expectations of affordability, accessibility, convenience and environment impact. Pedestrians, bicyclists, e-bikers, commuters on scooters and two-wheelers must all be accommodated alongside public transit.

Micro-cars have been unveiled by both the major French automakers. Their electric propulsion, tiny footprint and low speeds allow them to fit nicely into such cities. Ride-sharing services that can build in the requisite personal space for each occupant are important complements to such a system. Last week, Uber’s acquisition of shareholding in Lime, the scooter rental, is another sign of mobility service providers preparing for a greater heterogeneity of travel modes.

Anticipating staggered working hours, buses and metros will need schedules to be changed to allow for a longer “rush-hour”. Multi-modal journeys offer a greater flexibility of routing and can hence avoid crowding on select routes or modes. The role for data and technology in orchestrating this complex system in real time cannot be overstated — fortunately many cities have already shown that this is not a hurdle.

Most importantly, many cities have found that policies and regulations are the slowest to change. These are times when we can ill-afford such lethargy. Mobility architectures and urban architectures have a symbiotic relationship. They need to be addressed together and urgently, especially in fast-growing emerging economies like India, Indonesia and Brazil where urban population density is spiralling.

Covid-19 has forced us to plan for a New Normal. Through this series, we have examined many imperatives as we re-architect the auto industry and future mobility. For the sake of future generations, we need to get the new trajectory right. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed, “we are our choices”.

(This is part 5 of a five-part series)


Dr V Sumantran is the Chairman of Celeris Technologies and co-author of “Faster, Smarter, Greener: the future of the car and urban mobility” published by the MIT Press in 2017

Published on May 21, 2020

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