Urban Mobility in a Post-COVID-19 World: Revisiting Infrastructure Frameworks

Atharva Mehendale

May 29, 2020

7 MIN READ

Urban Mobility in a Post-COVID-19 World: Revisiting Infrastructure Frameworks
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A group of protestors blocked the entrance to a site office for a planned high-speed rail line, the HS2, in London a few days ago.

The group demanded the money be diverted from the project to improve health services amidst the Coronavirus pandemic.

They also claimed that the work was non-essential and was putting the lives of workers and their families at risk. Banners reading “NHS not HS2”, highlighting the chronic underfunding of the National Health Service (NHS), were seen during the protest.

The High Speed 2 (HS2) is a partly planned high-speed railway in the United Kingdom, with its first phase in the early stages of construction, and future stages awaiting approval.

Scheduled to open in phases between 2029 and 2035, HS2 will be the second major high-speed rail line in Britain. High-Speed 1 (HS1), which was the first, connects London to the Channel Tunnel, and was opened in the mid-2000s.

With social distancing here to stay for weeks, months and (possibly) years to come, the ridership for public transportation systems in cities would take a hit.

Protests like these bring up important questions about the way in which transport infrastructures in urban areas would be looked at in a post-COVID-19 world.

The pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities that challenge the resilience of infrastructures and institutions in cities. It has also changed the way in which people move, commute, work and live.

The call for social isolation and quarantine around the world has brought systems of public transportation in cities to a halt. If one is to think about a post-COVID-19 world, it would be necessary to understand what would the new ‘normal’ be for these transportation systems in particular, and for urban mobility patterns in general.

With social distancing here to stay for weeks, months and (possibly) years to come, the ridership for public transportation systems in cities would take a hit.

The economic turmoil that the pandemic has brought along is already starting to have a severe impact on employment, public and private investments and consumer spending patterns.

Taking this into account, a boom in private car ownership cannot be expected in spite of public transportation systems taking a hit, especially in developing economies.

A possibility of commuters opting for shared mobility options, self-driven (rented) cars and e-bikes seems like a highly probable option. In a situation like this, it is imperative for public agencies to rethink over the framework of investments in transport infrastructures.

These very demands and expectations are to undergo a transformational shift in the coming future, and it is necessary for policy discussions to keep up with this transformation.

An increased number of people would opt for working-from-home whenever possible, and hence, private and public players in the transport services sector should opt for newer business models to accommodate this shift.

Urban infrastructures exert significant influence on the global economy and have become central to ensuring a sustainable future, especially under United Nations SDGs 9 and 11, which call for “Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure” and “Sustainable Cities and Communities”, respectively.

Furthermore, the construction and operation of urban infrastructures put tremendous technical, economic, and management pressure on a plethora of stakeholders – users, citizens, investors, and policymakers.

All of these stakeholders have their own set of objectives and expectations, and urban infrastructures have to attend to them all. Ultimately, successful planning, operation and management of urban infrastructures also mean optimally balancing the responses to different stakeholder demands and expectations.

These very demands and expectations are to undergo a transformational shift in the coming future, and it is necessary for policy discussions to keep up with this transformation.

A discussion about the positive effects that the pandemic has had on the environment has also been a crucial one.

As industries, transport networks and businesses have closed down, it has brought a sudden drop in carbon emissions.

Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 percent because of measures taken to contain the virus.

It is crucial to think about the sustainability of mass-scale transportation projects like the HS2 in the face of the changing scenario.

This reduction in emissions can be jointly attributed to reduced industrial activity and urban mobility. While rethinking patterns of mobility in a post-COVID-19 world, it is necessary to lay emphasis on re-building the economy on renewable energy resources that would contribute towards significantly lowering carbon emissions.

This could be the revolution transportation systems need – more e-vehicles, rented cars, public transport run on renewable energy, and so on.

UNDP figures suggest that two-thirds of all humanity would live in urban areas by 2050. Sustainable development can be achieved only by significantly transforming the way we build and manage our urban spaces.

Making cities smart and sustainable would mean creating career and business opportunities that keep up with the changing social scenario, especially in the context of creating safe and affordable housing and building resilient economies.

It involves smart investments in public transport, and an improvement in urban planning and management systems. It is crucial to think about the sustainability of mass-scale transportation projects like the HS2 in the face of the changing scenario.

In conclusion, the need to rethink policy approaches and investment patterns around urban mobility to account for the transformational shift has been catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Atharva Mehendale is pursuing a Master of Arts in International Relations from the School of International Affairs, O.P Jindal Global University, India)

(Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), Nepal’s independent think tank, and Khabarhub — Nepal’s popular news portal — have joined hands to disseminate NIICE research articles from Nepal)

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