time lapse photography of person standing near train

How can cities get transport and cycling right to ensure a sustainable COVID-19 recovery?

COVID-19 has redistributed transport modes, to the detriment of public transport

COVID-19 stigmatised public transport as unable to preserve physical distancing and therefore health. Although some studies suggest the probability of becoming infected while using public transport is lower than in other closed spaces, many people are still staying away from buses, trains and subways. When transport services reduced or stopped service, it was to reduce massive flows of people, not because public transport itself was dangerous — but this was seldom communicated. Cities like Hong Kong, which depends on mass transit, registered fewer cases of COVID-19 than comparably sized cities. Manhattan has the highest density of subway lines in New York but the lowest contagion levels; yet, commuters are avoiding public transport. In Stockholm, ridership decreased by 60% in the spring of 2020 compared to the previous year and many travellers switched from 30-day period tickets to single tickets. In the Greater Vancouver region, ridership decreased by 70% during the outbreak compared to the same period in 2019. Fewer passengers means lower revenues for public transport providers and thus fewer resources to invest back into the system, further undermining the attractiveness of public transport use due to service unreliability. The provision of National government financial support to local transport authorities is fundamental to ensure public transport service provision. This is why transport authorities in New York City and London have received substantial bailouts from national government to ensure service provision.

Some commuters have returned to private car use. In the US, prices for new and used cars are soaring due to increased demand. In June 2020, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade’s survey revealed that one third of the Greater Vancouver’s population was expected to increase their private vehicle use. In other countries, governments are stimulating demand for private cars to boost economic recovery. In China, regional and local governments are increasing subsidies for certain automobile purchases, and raising the cap on the number of cars that can be owned in each locality. Germany is attaching green conditions to car industry support, while the US is planning public investment in electric vehicles, which should help reduce emissions, but not necessarily traffic congestion.

COVID-19 has prompted people to cycle and walk more to limit close contact, and the cycling industry is booming. Portugal, Europe’s largest bicycle manufacturer, plans to double production in 2021. In Spain, bicycle sales increased 30% in 2020 compared to 2019. Mexico City is building 64km of cycle lanes to meet growing demand. According to Bloomberg CityLab, in the US, Houston and Los Angeles, not typically considered to be cycling cities, saw an increase in the total number of cycling trips of 138% and 93% respectively in May 2020, compared to May 2019. In Wuhan, China, shared bicycles accounted for more than half of all trips (2.3 million rides) between January and March 2020. The OECD report on Cities’ policy responses to COVID-19, found that Bogotá, Brussels, Geneva, London, Milan and Paris are investing in extra permanent bicycle lanes. In the UK, 94% of people cycling or walking during the pandemic plan to continue after the crisis. The UK government has earmarked GBP 5 billion of its recovery package for investments in cycling and walking infrastructure.

Privately owned and shared fleet e-bikes and scooters are gaining renewed interest as well, due to their potential to support social distancing and first/last-mile journeys. New York City has legalised e-bikes and e-scooters, with several fleet operators competing for permits. While increased e-scooter use in some American cities has reduced private car use, in European cities like Paris and London the concerns about physical distancing on public transport has forced people to use e-scooters..

How can cities turn the COVID-19 legacy into a green mobility opportunity?

Mobility will not be the same after COVID-19. In cities like Madrid the private car and walking and cycling were the preferred mobility options in 2020. Governments need to avoid a car-led recovery. Brussels aims to reinforce its plan to become a ‘10-minute city’ where services can be reached easily on foot or bicycle. London aims for 80% of all trips to be made on foot, by bicycle or public transport by 2041, up from 63% in 2015. Active mobility (walking and cycling) alone cannot be a substitute for mass transit – public transport needs to be part of the answer, especially in large metropolitan areas. This is why countries like Germany, South Africa and the UK are also targeting public transport investment in their recovery packages.

The public transport industry needs to regain people’s trust. Promoting dialogue and engaging more closely with citizens would help better target mobility needs, and build public backing for investment decisions. To that effect,  the OECD report Improving Transport Planning for Accessible Cities advises cities to prioritise the improvement of transport performance by providing higher service frequency and better reliability throughout the day (not just peak hours); redesigning routes to match passenger demand; revising fare policies and schemes; and facilitating multi-modality – including cycling.

A new model of financing public transport is sorely needed. The introduction of congestion charges, higher fuel taxes and parking charges can provide valuable sources of revenues to finance new public and active transport while setting incentives for a behavioural shift that could deter the use of individual cars in urban centres. Taxing car use more heavily to reflect its true environmental costs, including CO2 emissions and air pollution, could encourage people to live nearer city centres, thus reducing urban sprawl.

By supporting the current uptake of cycling, cities and residents will reap the rewards in terms of improved health (due to increased exercise levels), economic gains (reduced freight costs) and environmental benefits (reduced CO2 emissions). Going forward, cities should strive to:

  • Build safe and inclusive on-street infrastructure for walking and cycling, and ensure their short-term investment outlasts the current crisis.   
  • Leverage planning systems for walking and cycling infrastructure to ensure sustainable funding to build, maintain, and expand the networks;
  • Exploit the complementarity of individual mobility devices such as e-bikes and e-scooters through introducing a classification of non-motor vehicles, delineating infrastructure, and regulating usage.

National and local governments need to act and invest together now to promote long-term sustainable transport. By doing so, they will lead the way to sustainable economic recovery and build healthier and safer cities for the future.

Author profile

Oscar Huerta Melchor is a project manager and policy analyst on urban development and public governance at the OECD. His main areas of interests are urban accessibility, housing, urban safety, metropolitan governance and local governments’ capacity. He previously worked on public employment and management issues at the OECD. He holds a MA and a PhD on Comparative Public Policy from the University of York, UK.