A post-COVID reset for the future of mobility

10 minute read
29 March 2021


To some it might seem perverse to be writing about how we get around at a time when so many of us have been stuck in our homes for so long - but there has never been a more important time to consider the future of mobility.

COVID-19 has forced us all to make changes to our travel habits. While the pandemic kept the climate emergency off the front pages last year, 2021 is undoubtedly going to be a critical year for the environment, culminating in the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in November, and gives another huge impetus to review our need for mobility and the systems by which it is achieved.

With roadmaps in place for ending lockdown and economic recovery, there is now a rare and urgent opportunity for government, business and the public to come together to accelerate much needed changes in mobility. This is our chance to not only address the pressing environmental issues around carbon, emissions and air quality, but also to tackle far-reaching socio-economic issues from health and active travel, to inclusivity and the future of our city and town centres.

The changing face of mobility

From driverless cars and hydrogen fuel cells to mobility hubs, drone deliveries and boundless apps, there is no shortage of innovation and ideas in the future mobility debate. The challenge is to capture the public's imagination and turn this into behaviour change.

One silver lining from COVID-19 has been forced changes to engrained travel habits, many of which could become the new normal. Many cities have rapidly expanded space for cycling and walking, and the 15-minute city model, developed by Professor Carlos Moreno from Paris's Sorbonne University well before the pandemic arrived, has rapidly become a familiar concept.

The model prescribes improvements to the quality of life by creating cities where everything a resident needs can be reached within a quarter of an hour by foot or bike. This has huge implications for future mobility, as well as our towns and city centres. We've seen how the approach has played out in the rise of e-scooters and other micromobility vehicles plus the resurgence of the suburban economy as people have become accustomed to staying and buying local.

It is all too easy to overlook goods in the mix. Goods deliveries use energy and compete for modal capacity alongside people, and while people may be staying local themselves, the boom in internet sales has brought massive growth in delivery, particularly in the 'last mile', whether it's take-away food, weekly groceries or online shopping. The consolidation and management of goods mobility is going to have a major impact on mobility more broadly, as the focus on efficiency must consider the number of parcels in a van just as much the number of people in a car.

In the short term, one of the hardest questions is assessing just what changes will last as the new normal. For example, just a few months ago it seemed certain that the future lay in a hybrid mix of home and occasional office-based working. More recently, as the vaccine roll-out has gathered pace and the potential for an end to restrictions comes into focus, the mood has shifted with some employers calling for a complete return to the office, changing the goal posts for mobility and how workers travel.

Future use of public transport is particularly hard to predict. Will we ever see train and bus use at pre-pandemic levels again? The approach of the UK's largest public transport body is a good bellwether. Transport for London (TfL) is planning for a significant sustained impact. This year TfL expects use of its services to recover to 60% of pre-COVID levels, rising to 80% in the medium-term. That is a different world from the relentless passenger increases of recent decades, but as the most efficient means of moving large numbers of people, public mass transport will always have a major role - and a car-based recovery will not be sustainable in terms of road space and congestion, let alone carbon and air quality.

If we are to seize the opportunity to enable more sustainable transport which embraces 'building back better'; and drives economic recovery, then we must nurture and incentivise the right mobility behaviour changes. Achieving this will be no mean feat but there are three interlinked areas of focus which will help convert talk into action.

Overhaul policy and governance

The Government's ten-point green plan announced last November set out an encouraging statement of intention for mobility. It featured a ban on combustion engine sales by 2030; grants for electric vehicles (EVs); funding for charge points; and promoting public transport, cycling and walking. Since then we have seen a variety of announcements adding more meat to the bones: among them, home and workplace EV charging grants from the Department for Transport (DfT) in February; the £3 billion shake-up of bus travel earlier this month; and the transport decarbonisation plan is due very shortly.

Yet, more urgency and clarity is needed from policymakers to rapidly drive us away from business as usual. The ban on non-EV sales sounds great but how do we boost the UK's charging infrastructure to make this possible? What about on-street parking? Who has the right to install chargers? We need to ramp-up efforts considerably and quickly to answer these questions. Decisive action from national and local policymakers now could help drive the change required and, as ever, the devil will be in the detail.

Co-ordination between branches of government, and tiers of authority, as well as between public and private sectors, will be essential. The DfT's 'Bus Back Better' national bus strategy identifies those challenges by addressing different approaches for different local authority structures, the public body/private operator relationship; using funding to support change while cutting it for less desirable outcomes; and considering matters such as data and the ambit of future regulation.

Winning hearts and minds

Mass behaviour change can be hard to encourage: it has taken a global pandemic to force the changes we have seen over the last 12 months. But change can be nurtured where there is not only a moral incentive but also a financial one, as tools like the plastic bag charge have shown. Government policy around taxation and pricing will go some way to encouraging the desired actions, but the task to influence tens of millions of individual choices on substantial personal investments is massive - far bigger choices than whether or not to ask for a plastic bag.

In 2020, Norway became the first country where more electric cars were bought than petrol, hybrid and diesel engines put together, and battery EVs accounted for two-thirds of sales in the final months of 2020. Those are very visible statistics but still fewer than 10% of the cars actually on the road in Norway are EVs, even after more than twenty years of concerted public policy. Tax cuts have been a key element but promoting desired behaviour through free parking and reduced road and ferry tolls was also instrumental as part of a cocktail of measures increasing inclusivity so that more Norwegians were able to participate. Challenges still remain - for instance around charger availability and reliability.

There are over 30 million cars in the UK, whose owners occupy around 26 million dwellings. There is a huge amount to be done before all those people can be operating EVs - and it may be that part of the solution is in mobility becoming a service, using far fewer vehicles, more intensively, in place of the current pattern of millions of cars sitting unused for most of the time.

Funding confidence

The sums of money announced recently by Government sound vast. They are, and of course they are meant to sound that way, but what really matters is the scale of the task.

As large as they are, those sums alone will not be enough to meet the huge scale of the decarbonisation challenge. Much of what needs to be done will be achieved with borrowed money. As we've seen during recent months, there's been no shortage in investment interest in mobility solutions, from e-bikes and fleet management to the logistics supply chain and last mile delivery - as well as the tech that enables these developments.

But investors and funders are not donors and need to be able to assess risk and returns. They will invest or lend more readily where there is greater clarity and confidence in regulations, taxation and subsidies. Uncertainty will only serve to increase costs or, if too great, drive the money away completely. Poorly designed government interventions and frequent policy changes must be avoided, so policy and delivery mechanisms must be thought through carefully, whatever the urgency.

Mobility is central to our society. It allows us to connect with places, shapes our lives and drives our economy. But for too long the unintended consequences of how people and goods move around has negatively impacted the environment and our society. The changes that have been forced on us present an opportunity for a different future for mobility where effectively nurturing and investing in the right behaviours can drive both economic recovery and more sustainable cities and towns.

Gowling WLG's diverse experience and expertise in all aspects of mobility can help you navigate the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead. To find out more contact Giles Clifford.

Can a smart city ever be realised without significant changes to our cycling infrastructure? Take a look at our guest blog from Olympic gold winning cyclist Ed Clancy OBE to find out more.

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