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[COVID-19] Life after Covid-19: an opportunity for the development of soft mobility?

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While the health crisis has highlighted the resilience of many existing systems (logistics, working from home, technology, local shops, communication, etc.), it has also highlighted some areas that simply do not work and which we must consider avenues for improvement in the future.

The environmental emergency remains a major concern and is only reinforced further in a context where people are going back to basics. A desire to consume and produce more thoughtfully, in a fairer and localised manner has come out of this crisis, which has acted as a real catalyst for a new way of thinking that was already underway. Moving around in a cleaner, eco-responsible and sustainable way has also become a serious consideration for many. What if this crisis is an opportunity to change our habits and democratise the use of soft mobility in a sustainable way?

Meeting health standards

Currently, the main reason for using soft mobility is to uphold social distancing measures in order to avoid the spread of Covid-19. The personalised vehicle certainly appears to be a pragmatic solution, but its systematic use, particularly in urban areas, no longer meets current standards of sustainable development or responsible consumption. Whilst a vaccine is still unavailable, people will have to find alternatives to public transport, alternatives that may eventually become the norm. In Paris, Catherine Guillouard, President of the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the state-owned public transport operator in Paris), announced that the health-related conditions linked to going back to using public transport were expected in the next few days, but called on companies to continue to allow remote working. 
 
According to a study published by the World Health Organization in 2019, air pollution will likely cause nearly 800,000 deaths per year in Europe, 2.8 million in China and 8.8 million worldwide. These figures confirm the need to drastically reduce pollution, particularly from transport, which accounted for 25% of CO2 emissions in 2016 (source: futurascience).

Individualised and shared soft mobility appears for the moment to be the best way to respond to health and ecological issues, provided we continue to adopt these ways of travelling after the crisis.


 

Integrating biodiversity into transport infrastructures

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL explained in a recent article that the rapid urbanisation of our planet is having a profound effect on “global health, security and economies.” By breaking down natural areas such as woods and forests, we are coming into closer contact with new life-threatening viruses from wildlife. By allowing this close contact to wildlife she believes there is “a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”


In short, the destruction of natural habitats around the world, due to urban sprawl, pollution and the creation of manmade land (including transportation infrastructure such as roads, car parks and pavements) is increasing the scarcity of habitats for wildlife. In fact, wildlife is declining dramatically and by losing their "natural hosts" viruses are able to spread more easily to domestic animals and then onto humans. With our modern living arrangements being dense and ultra-connected, the spread of a virus is all the more rapid. 

Concrete measures are being taken across the world

Metropolises and states have not waited for the end of lockdown in order to put in place new transportation solutions. The city of Milan, for example, has announced an ambitious plan to transform 35kms of streets into cycling and pedestrian zones. The city of Bogotá created no less than 117kms of additional cycle paths overnight to encourage greater social distancing measures. Glasgow has opened a free bike-sharing scheme for healthcare workers. Berlin doubled the width of its cycle paths to accommodate the increasing bicycle traffic. The Île-de-France region around Paris has unveiled a budget of €300 million, destined for the setting up of different soft mobility options, including 650kms of additional cycle paths.

Getting back on the bike

"Everyone agrees that as the epidemic ends there will be a collective rejection of public transport," says Pierre Serne (former vice-president of the Île-de-France region). "If we don't want to take the metro, bus or coach to get to work for fear of contagion, we must be able to get around by other means". Public transport remains essential in cities to ensure the easy movement of people from one place to another. However, there will undoubtedly be reluctance to use such means, which will likely encourage the use of private transport, at least initially. The first stage of relaxing lockdown will certainly be gradual and will continue to encourage remote working for many people, meaning those using public transportation will see a reduced volume of commuters.  

It is logical then the bicycle bridges the transition gap. Inexpensive, available for shared use and a means of physical activity, the bike benefits from existing infrastructure in many cities. Non-polluting, silent and individual it meets many environmental and social desires currently being displayed by human across the world. Similar alternatives, such as scooters, will likely also be in greater demand. 

Travelling differently and having the choice

It goes without saying that cycling does not meet everyone's needs. We must also consider rural and poorly served areas, people with reduced mobility, large families or people who have to carry equipment. Public transport will thus have a role to play, provided that health standards are properly respected. Combining the different means of transport will make it possible to benefit from their complementarity and avoid the saturation of the networks. 

New technologies will of course have their role to play in optimising these new ways of travelling and perhaps adapting their services to the recent health crisis. It is conceivable that travel time will become less of a priority and the focus will be put onto the choice of transport on offer. Naturally, only time will tell, but in a context of urgency and experimentation, we must take advantage of what has been successful, in the way that remote working may become the norm in the future.