COVID-19 prompts rethinking of mobility and city planning

17 Apr 2020

Photo Credit: Madan Bandhu Regmi. Active Lanes : Photo of a road surrounded by greenery and built up areas on one side and a water body on the other

Mobility is an essential part of urban life. People travel for various reasons, such as going to work, educational institutions, recreation and shopping. Asian cities offer diverse means of commuting: walking, cycling, motorcycles, public and mass transport, micro-mobility, paratransit, private cars, public taxis and ride hailing systems.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has had a profound impact on transport and mobility. Countries and cities in the region have announced measures to restrict travel and social gatherings while prescribing that all maintain social/physical distance and personal hygiene to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Travel restrictions are discouraging the use of public transport in the short term. In some cities, public transport operators are employing sanitization and physical distance policies for passengers such as staggered seating. Yet, winning the confidence of users remains difficult for psychological and behavioral reasons.

On the other hand, we have seen improvement in air quality and reductions in CO2 emissions due to the decrease in transport activity. But these are short-term gains and air pollution and emissions are expected rise again once the situation is resolved.

Current challenges faced by public transport and mobility due to COVID-19 and benefits of active mobility provide new impetus to transport and city planners to rethink on forms of mobility and city planning. In the medium and long run, it would be wiser to plan emerging small and medium-sized cities based on public transport and active mobility.

Only active mobility or non-motorized transport including walking, cycling and micro-mobility such as electronic scooter can allow for maintaining physical distance. Public cycling systems in cities of the region are growing. While micro-mobility is operational in many cities in Europe and North America, it is only operating in a few Asian countries, cities and universities such as Thailand, Singapore and the Republic of Korea.

Many Asian cities have good share of active mobility: Kathmandu (42 per cent), Surat (27 per cent), Ho Chi Minh City (23 per cent), Colombo (22 per cent), Dhaka (17 per cent) and Suva (9 per cent). However, the share of active mobility is low in Surabaya (3 per cent), and Hanoi (3.2 per cent). Among active mobility trends, the share of walking is high and cycling is low.

Active mobility leads to health benefits due to increases in physical activities. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, which includes transportation. Generally, people walk a block or about 500 m to take public transport. For work, 20 minutes or a one-mile walk is considered reasonable. However, comfortable commuting distance also depends on the quality of walking surface and surrounding environment.


Bandung public cycle
Photo Credit: Madan Bandhu Regmi. Photo of Bandung public cycle

The ESCAP Sustainable Urban Transport Index: Data Collection Guideline recommends that a good urban mobility plan should have alternatives to motorized transport which includes public transport, walking and cycling networks and intermodal interchange facilities. Active mobility is part of integrated urban transport and city planning but has not received due priority.

A supply side intervention, such as the provision of interconnected infrastructure for active mobility, could influence travel behavior of urban residents. Types of infrastructure that promote active mobility include exclusive walking and cycling lanes, walkways and wide footpaths, cycling tracks, interconnected parks and resting areas along the routes. Size and form of the city, culture and weather also affect choices for active mobility.

The supply of infrastructure needs to be backed by related policies and community-level advocacy to encourage people to make work and school trips on active mobility and recreational walking and cycling. These are low-cost mobility options compared to public transport which needs huge investments.

There is direct relation among the supply of infrastructure, active mobility and the health and well-being of commutes. Physical activities also help to develop immune systems against common diseases. Non-motorized transport runs on zero energy emissions as the cleanest form of transport. Thus, it reduces transport sector emissions as well as ensures safe mobility in case of future pandemics. This will also contribute to the achievements of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3: Good health and well-being, 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure, 11: Sustainable cities and communities and 13: Climate action.

Considering the health benefits of active mobility and employing pull strategy and supply side interventions, city authorities could consider employing following strategies:

  • Plan compact cities based on public transport and active mobility
  • Prioritize active mobility as part of public transport
  • Plan and develop related infrastructure for active mobility
  • Develop resting areas and public parks
  • Improve environment along walking/cycling routes by planting trees and beautification.

The change of mindset and rethinking of transport, urban and city planners is required. The above strategies will be useful for emerging small and medium sized cities to model and plan cities based on public transport and active mobility before these cities are locked in and influenced by car-centric development path.

Related SDGs: Goal 3: Good health and well-being, Goal 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure, Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities, Goal 13: Climate action