COVID-19 prompts rethinking of urban mobility and city planning

In this article, Author covers strategies that will be useful for emerging small and medium-sized cities to model and plan based on public transport and active mobility before these cities are locked in and influenced by car-centric development path.

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urban mobility and city planning
urban mobility and city planning

In the life of urban mobility, people used to travel for many reasons it may be going to work, educational areas, recreation and shopping. Asian cities offer diverse means of travelling like walking, cycling, motorcycles, public and mass transport, micro-mobility, paratransit, private cars, public taxis & ride-hailing systems.

COVID-19 outbreak has had a profound impact on transport and mobility. As this nationwide lockdown announced measures to restrict travel and social gatherings and urged to maintain social distance and personal hygiene to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In short, we can say that these restrictions are impacting the use of public transport in all cities. In some cities, public transport operators are employing sanitization & physical distance policies for travellers like staggered seating. But still, it remains difficult to win the confidence of commuters for psychological and behavioural reasons.

And if we talk about the other good side of this lockdown impact, we have seen a change in air quality and reductions in CO2 emissions because of the less transport activity. But these are actually the short-term gains as air pollution and emissions are expected to rise again once the situation is resolved.

Due to COVID-19, current difficulties faced by public transport & mobility and benefits of active mobility give new impetus to transport & city planners to think twice on forms of mobility and city planning. In the short and long run, it will be wiser to plan emerging small and medium-sized cities depending on public transport and active mobility.

Only active mobility or non-motorized transport like walking, cycling and micro-mobility as the electronic scooter can provide for maintaining a social distance. Nowadays in cities of different regions, Public cycling systems are growing. Where micro-mobility is operational in various cities in Europe & North America, it is only operating in some Asian countries, cities and universities like Thailand, Singapore and the Republic of Korea.

Various Asian cities have a good share of active mobility such as Kathmandu 42%, Surat 27%, Ho Chi Minh City 23%, Colombo22%, Dhaka 17% and Suva 9%. However, active mobility share is low in Surabaya 3%, and Hanoi 3.2%. Among active mobility trends, the walking share is high and cycling is low.

The active mobility helps to increases physical activities which is beneficial for health. The World Health Organization suggests at least 150 minutes of physical activity every week that includes transportation.

An average of people walks a block or around 500 m to take public transport. For work, 20 min or a one-mile walk is considered reasonable. However, comfortable travelling distance also depends on the quality of the walking surface and the surrounding environment.

The ESCAP Sustainable Urban Transport Index, Data Collection Guideline suggests that a good urban mobility plan should have options to motorized transport that includes public transport, walking & cycling networks and intermodal interchange amenities.

Active mobility is part of integrated urban transport & city planning but has not taken due priority.

A supply-side intervention like the provision of interconnected infrastructure for active mobility can influence travel behaviour of urban residents. There are some infrastructure that encourages active mobility to involve exclusive walking and cycling lanes, walkways and wide footpaths, cycling tracks, interconnected parks and resting sectors along the routes.

The supply of infrastructure needs to be backed by related policies and community-level advocacy to enhance people to do work and school trips on active mobility & recreational walking and cycling. These are low-cost mobility areas compared to public transport that requires big investments. Between the supply of infrastructure, active mobility and the health and well-being of commutes there is a direct relation.

Physical exercises also help to develop immune systems. Non-motorized transport runs on 0 energy emissions as the cleanest form of transport. So, it helps in reducing transport sector emissions along with ensures safe mobility in case of future pandemics.

This would also contribute to the achievements of Sustainable Development Goals 3: Good health & well-being, 9: Industry, innovation & infrastructure, 11: Sustainable cities & communities and 13: Climate action.

City authorities could consider employing the following strategies by considering the health advantages of active mobility and employing pull strategy and supply-side interventions –

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

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


The Article first appeared on ESCAP and written by Madan B. Regmi

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