The challenge of new mobility after the COVID-19 crisis

Written by Fernando Fernández Monge

The COVID-19 crisis has led us to be collectively faced with an unprecedented situation and, in order to find a solution, a permanent dialogue is necessary. The writer Pedro Bravo moderated the agora of El Día Después held on 30th June, creating a space for dialogue and reflection about the challenges of new mobility caused by the pandemic. 

Antonio Lucio, Professor of Mobility and Urban Strategies at the EOI school, and Carolyn Daher, Coordinator of Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative at ISGlobal, opened the event by explaining the challenges and the need of not going back to the worst scenarios before the pandemic.

Both of them pointed out the need to have a less polarized discourse, which has been a global trend transferred to mobility. Demonizing and contrasting modes of transport will not help to design a better model.

This need is even more urgent as, after the devastating health crisis, COVID-19 has forced us to physically distance ourselves from others, reduce our mobility and be confined to our homes, causing a great crisis in urban mobility. This has had a particularly severe impact on what belongs to everyone: public transport.

Although we have been confined to our homes, the pandemic has also opened a window of opportunity for urban mobility. As Jordi Peris, General Coordinator of Urban Strategies and Sustainability of Valencia, said: this is a time where inertias are broken and change processes are accelerated. 

Three elements of this disruptive time were outlined: what, when and how.

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What

The pandemic has forced us to change our ways in terms of mobility, modifying some trends in companies. Asier Arriaga, from the Uría Menéndez law firm, explained the increase in people working from home and flexible schedules as a result of the pandemic. The Director of the RACC foundation, Lluis Puerto, indicated that some transformations were being accelerated before March, such as electrification of transport.

In this sense, Esaú Acosta, from Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas, believes that making mobility more healthy, sustainable and equal is possible. It is necessary to rethink mobility from the perspective of people and, in particular, of the groups that have generally been forgotten by planners, such as women and children. 

The exceptional situation that we have undergone can help us to point out previously hidden weaknesses or benefits, such as clean air or the recovery of public space, which have not been enjoyed. For example, Marta Serrano, from Mujeres en Movimiento, explained how the pandemic has shown us that essential activities, which are generally carried out by women and accompanied by children or the elderly, are not included in transport planning. Planning is focused on home-work and work-home journeys (a linear approach) and not considering mobility with more stages of care: picking up minors from school and going back home, or stops and journeys to do shopping or caring for an elderly person they look after.

The good news is that there are proposals to make this new mobility a reality. Professor and Urban Planner Carlos Moreno, creator of the “15-minute city” concept, explained how this idea implies establishing a new relationship between space and time (chrono-urbanism), creating multipurpose spaces that break functional segmentation (chronotope), and developing a story of sentimental ties with places and neighbourhoods (topophilia).

Some cities, such as Valencia, have already carried out tactical urban planning actions to recover urban space. They allow actions to be experimented and learnt, mistakes to be made, as well as adjusting said actions. In Madrid, initiatives have also been launched, such as provisional bike lanes. 

As the debate made clear, the most important thing is that these actions are intended as permanent, but also that they are not isolated or improvised actions. María Eugenia López Lamas, from the TRANSyT centre of the Technical University of Madrid, defended that technology and data collection can help to understand the impact and potentiality of these actions, and include them in a more strategic vision of this new mobility.

All of these actions must also include communication actions. In the case of public transport, the researcher Oriol Marquet from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, indicated the fear that has spread as a result of certain messages which are not always supported by empirical evidence. Pedro Bravo defended the importance of valuing what we have in common, in the face of the prevailing individualistic narrative based on fear. 

When

Consensus was even greater in terms of “when” than “what”. The time is now. Now is when an answer to current challenges needs to be provided, but without taking our eyes off other issues that existed before the pandemic. 

As Gaspar Llanes, Coordinator of Strategic Planning Seville 2030 of the Town Hall of Seville, said ”in the next 20 months we are dealing with the future of the next 20 years”. This connection between the short and long term in terms of the importance of now is the essence of El Día Después, because, as Rebeca Grynspan pointed out in the previous agora “short term and long term have something in common: they both start now”. 

How

What and when are clear, but that does not make new mobility easier. On the contrary, is it obvious that no stakeholder can solve this without collaboration from others.

Lola Ortiz and Xavier Sanyer explained the initiatives in Madrid and Barcelona to merge public transport demand with public administrations, companies, universities and social organizations that are just as important, as examples of this collective effort. The challenges can be a key source to find latent innovation and collaboration capabilities in cities.

However, collaboration requires a lot of work and generating the necessary spaces to invest, shape, and incubate those capacities and collaborative projects. This is the objective that El Día Después originated with, and the Agora on 30th June, with that diversity of stakeholders and initiatives, which were a faithful reflection of the collaboration potential to recover from this crisis with healthier, sustainable and equitable mobility.

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