In 2020, March and April offered city-dwellers glimpses of a very different future. With coronavirus lockdowns in full swing, traffic was almost non-existent: in the UK, road travel plummeted to levels not seen since 1955. Where once cars reigned supreme, pedestrians and cyclists in cities from Berlin to Bogota were free to roam along near-deserted streets and miles of new pop-up footpaths and cycle lanes.
But as lockdowns have eased, traffic levels are shooting up again. And not just to pre-pandemic levels – with many people still reluctant to use public transport, they’re surpassing them. According to navigation company TomTom, over 30 large cities around the globe recorded more congestion in mid-June compared to the same period in 2019. ‘Dirty air’ associated with vehicle emissions is on the rise once more.
Rethinking how cities function
After a century of largely shaping cities around cars, the pandemic gave a sudden, unexpected insight into how we might reimagine urban areas. Now, the question is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’.
“This a fork-in-the-road moment,” says Nicole Badstuber, transport policy and travel behaviour researcher at University College London and the University of Westminster. “It’s forcing citizens and governments to reconsider how cities function. Do the solutions we have in place really benefit as many people as possible?”
Encouragingly, plenty of the temporary bike lanes, footpaths and traffic restrictions imposed during lockdown have remained in place. Below are just a handful of the recent measures and aims announced in cities around the world.
- In London, plans are now underway to create one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world.
- Rome will build 150 kilometres of temporary and permanent cycle routes to support social distancing as well as general health and well-being.
- Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to create a “15-minute city,” where most people’s daily needs are easily reachable by foot, bicycle or public transport.
- In Bogota, working hours were staggered for different industries to reduce congestion: so, construction may start at 10am, with retail beginning at noon.
- Chinese city Shenzhen will construct a new car-free district the size of mid-town Manhattan, including offices, homes, parks and entertainment venues.
How technology can help
Innovation will be crucial to making traffic in post-pandemic cities smarter and greener. One German company believes a more intelligent steering of traffic lights alone could reduce street congestion by 25%.
However, planning large-scale solutions has traditionally been difficult, expensive and slow, says Robin North, co-founder and CEO of Immense, a simulation platform for future mobility systems.
Like Badstuber, he believes coronavirus represents a major opportunity to redesign transport networks – with the right technology. “Powerful simulation software can help us rapidly investigate permutations involving aspects like electric charging infrastructure, the effect of autonomous vehicles, efficient use of roadspace and better roadwork planning,” he says.
The role of logistics
So, what does this mean for logistics? Even before coronavirus, delivery vehicles were becoming an increasingly common sight on city streets. In the UK, van traffic doubled between 1993 and 2018. Now, the pandemic has seen online shopping levels – and delivery volumes – shoot up. This is a trend that looks set to stay: In July 2020, Hermes announced it will create more than 10,000 new jobs in the UK to cope with rising demand.
Last-mile delivery is already becoming more diverse and more sustainable. Hermes has a growing fleet of electric vans, while pedal power could become increasingly common, especially with increased traffic restrictions in city centres.
Further solutions to benefit urban environments could include shared facilities between multiple delivery companies, which Hermes has already trialled in Berlin, and night-time slots for commercial deliveries. Empty high-street stores could provide extra space for city-centre storage and distribution via cargo bikes or even autonomous robots.
With the pandemic not yet over, it remains to be seen how it will affect our cities in the long run. Nicole Badstuber believes governments, businesses and citizens should seize the opportunity. “Now is a great time to trial options and gather valuable data for future decisions.”