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The influence of the pandemic on mobility and the future of European cities

Though ravaged by Allied bombing during World War II and shadowed by the concrete of the Cold War, Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz emerged from the rubble to reclaim its place as one of the busiest intersections in the city and in Europe.

Although the towering and grandiose hotels of the turn of the century have been replaced by gleaming skyscrapers, the traffic flow in the summer of 2021 seems as great as ever.

But is everything what it seems?

Where mobility has been most affected

When mobility came to a sharp halt in March 2020, as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, questions were raised that might not have been asked for a decade.

Heightened concern about the climate and the way humans want to live and move together became issues that could not be ignored. Cities were at the center of all these questions.

“The pandemic had a huge impact on mobility,” says Professor and Dr. Meike Jipp, director of the Transport Research Institute of the German Aerospace Center.

“In Germany, we observed that there was an immense decrease in mobility, both in terms of the kilometers traveled per day, and the number of trips made each day,” he adds.

Meike Jipp believes that public transport will be one of the areas most affected by the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, you would drive to the station and then opt for the train to go to the city. If that was your usual way of getting around, today you will only use the car to go to the city,” says Jipp.

“In reality, the car is, along with the bicycle, the great winner in the situation generated by the pandemic. And, the public transport system and aviation are the big losers.”

“So people are choosing to move individually. Basically, they are afraid of getting sick or catching and contracting the virus. That has been the big change experienced, and it still continues.”

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Earlier this year, a global survey promoted by the transit app Moovit asked people how COVID-19 had affected the way they used public transit. The study revealed that up to a third of people in some cities had stopped using public transportation because of the pandemic.

“It’s more important to think about how we can regain confidence in public transportation, or how we can motivate people to use their bicycles,” says Jipp. “There are many people who could use the bicycle to go somewhere, but currently, they use their own cars.”

How the pandemic has pushed European cities towards greener mobility

In a sense, the car is one of the winners in the scenario generated by the pandemic. But, its long-term future is much more volatile, as cities across Europe are moving towards greener visions of mobility in the coming years.

For example, Barcelona plans to convert 21 streets, some 33 kilometers of roads, into green pedestrian areas with more space for pedestrians on foot, along with additional infrastructure for bicycles.

Although there has been some opposition from local businesses, who complain that it is now more difficult for delivery drivers to access their premises, the chief architect of Barcelona, ​​Xavi Matilla, argues that the pandemic has shown that, if cities they do not become greener, more people will move to rural areas where the air is of better quality.

“The pandemic has functioned as a magnifying glass that has made us see that health should be one of the central aspects in the management and planning of the city,” says Matilla.

Paris is another of the great European cities that has begun to make striking changes due to concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. Changes that have been accelerated by the effects generated by the pandemic.

“I think the big trend that is going to occur in Europe is that they are going to begin to contemplate the so-called post-car cities,” warns Ross Douglas, founder and CEO of Autonomy Paris, a global event on sustainable urban mobility.

Douglas highlights the great effort that the French capital has put into the development of bicycle lanes.

“Paris has moved in this direction with a very simple infrastructure change with bike lanes. 150 million euros have been invested in infrastructure for cyclists and, now, there is a 50% increase in bicycle use year after year , in recent times, “explains Ross Douglas.

“The Paris authorities want people to have active mobility and to walk and cycle through the streets,” he explains.

Mobility beyond electric vehicles

Despite the recent rise in popularity of electric vehicles and their obvious improvement in terms of emission reductions compared to traditional combustion engine cars, Douglas believes that the time of the automobile, as the focus of attention, is limited.

“Governments are going to try to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by changing people’s mobility. And that is going to create enormous pressure for people to change,” says Douglas.

“I think that, firstly, we will see a change from combustion cars to electric cars, like what is being observed now. But then there will be a change and there will be pressure on the person to stop owning. of a car. Because even an electric car has a large carbon footprint embedded in the manufacturing process, “he suggests.

While the idea of ​​ditching cars entirely may seem far-fetched, Douglas may be right if concepts like ’15-minute city’ start to gain a following.

The concept of the ’15-minute city’, developed by Professor Carlos Moreno, from the Sorbonne University, is an antidote to the dysfunctional aspects of life in the city, such as long commutes to work, noisy streets and underused spaces. Thus, it poses a world in which all the daily necessities are just 15 minutes away on foot or by bicycle.

“We have to reduce the presence of cars on the streets,” says Moreno. “The pandemic has made us think about how to move in a different way, consume in another way and live in another way,” concludes the architect of the initiative that aims to end the presence of cars in the center of the French capital.

This report is part of Euronews Mobility Week. From September 13 to 17, 2021 we explore the trends that shape the future of transportation and personal mobility. See more reports here.

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