State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


How Urban Transport is Changing in the Age of COVID-19

The COVID-19 virus has upended how we live, work, and move. During the most aggressive transmission period, governments asked half of the global population to stay at home, and travel demand across all modes dropped sharply. In a matter of weeks, public transit ridership around the world plummeted as much as 80 percent, and road traffic has declined approximately 50 percent in the US compared to last year.

streets empty in time square
Car-less Times Square during peak stay-at-home orders (Photo: Kathy Zhang)

The transportation sector is the largest contributor to US greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for close to 30 percent. In recent years, transportation-related emissions have remained flat while the power generation sector emissions have declined due to strides in decarbonization. The sudden, dramatic drop in travel demand and varying global responses provide valuable lessons for building back more sustainable, equitable transportation ecosystems.

Rise of two-wheeled vehicles

bicyclist and scooterist on nyc street corner
Bike and scooters are increasingly popular transportation alternatives (Photo: Kathy Zhang)

As city lockdowns intensified, businesses closed, and streets emptied, frontline essential workers still needed reliable and affordable means of getting to work.

In the brief period before mass lockdown, cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia saw sharp increases in bike share trips as residents looked to cycling to get around with lower contagion risks. Compared to March last year, NYC DOT recorded a more than 50 percent increase in cycling on all East River Bridges.

Cycling has augmented reductions in transit service, and many city-run bike share systems and private shared bike and scooter companies are providing free or reduced rides. The immediate impacts of the pandemic have underscored the critical importance of building redundancies into our urban transportation systems with flexible, low-cost options that can be easily relocated based on demand.

Taking away space for cars

The pandemic has opened up a rare opportunity for cities to reallocate public space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists. Over 250 cities globally have introduced measures to give space to cyclists and pedestrians in response of COVID-19 (e.g. closing certain streets to cars, widening sidewalks, adding bike lanes, etc), and major cities like Paris and Rome are expanding their bike infrastructure permanently. A continuously updated list of local government actions to support walking and active transportation is available here.

Private sector mobility data sharing

As a form of data philanthropy, private companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google have made an unprecedented amount of anonymized, aggregated location and movement data available to researchers, users, and the general public. In theory, the data can help governments forecast hotspots and transmission patterns, adjust response efforts, and evaluate the impacts of different interventions.

Mobility data for March through April 2020. Source: NYC COVID-19 Community Mobility Report by Google

Opportunities for sustainable and equitable recovery

Several European climate and environment ministers have signed an open letter which advocates for using the European Green Deal as the framework for the region’s COVID recovery plan. Proposed as a European climate law, the European Green Deal seeks to reduce transport-related emissions by 90 percent by 2050, with carbon pricing mechanisms and stringent vehicle emissions standards as key levers in its sustainable mobility strategy. World Bank economists note that green stimulus packages should be aligned with each country’s goals under the Paris Agreement, paving the path for green transport programs such as expansion of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and bus and bike lanes.

At the local level, cities must address how the environmental and health impacts of transportation are unevenly distributed. Jen Roberton, senior transportation policy advisor at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, points to a study from the local department of health showing that low-income communities in NYC are twice as likely to be exposed to traffic-related air pollution from trucks and buses.

“We must account for historic and institutionalized inequality by actively involving environmental justice communities in our work — this work is now inextricably linked to our COVID recovery work,” said Roberton. “We must electrify the trucks and buses that emit high amounts of particulates to reduce air pollution across the city, continue to expand active transportation infrastructure, and get people back on our buses and trains once we can get the city safely up and running again.”

Emerging issues

The immediate and obvious impact of this pandemic has been a sharp decline in travel demand and associated emissions and pollution. The medium- and long-term impacts are less clear. Five key issues to watch when the US enters the COVID recovery period:

  • Travel demand. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of telecommuting, telemedicine, online education, and the digitalization of many other services. Virtual facsimiles for meetings and classrooms, and wellness have seen explosive growth. How much will these new virtual habits—born out of necessity—stick post-quarantine?
  • Car-free areas. Many cities have temporarily repurposed roadway and parking space for cyclists and pedestrians to reduce emissions and congestion. Additionally, cities like London, Brussels, and Madrid are doubling down on existing plans to establish car-free zones in the urban core permanently. How will these policy changes affect private and shared car use?
  • Political and financial capital for infrastructure change. As city leaders make inevitable budget cuts, how can we preserve and expand investments in bus and bike lanes?
  • Transit financial and operational health. As different sources of transit revenue (e.g. fares, gas taxes) plummet, will agencies receive enough federal aid to adequately resume operations, in terms of reliability, geographic coverage, and frequency?
  • Impetus for green transition. Will recovery investments from governments and multilateral development banks support green infrastructure and renewable energy projects that are essential for decarbonizing transport?

Maruxa Cardama, secretary general at the Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport, highlights what’s at stake in the recovery and rebuilding phase: “The biggest risk is that countries would need to reactivate their economies, they would need to generate economic movement, they would need to generate jobs. And it’s very easy to go back to business as usual because so far, we have not been good enough across the globe to run our economies and our prosperity within planetary boundaries.”

As Professor Emeritus Elliot Sclar notes, “The city itself was invented as a solution to a transportation problem.” To build more resilient, equitable, and sustainable transportation systems, cities will need to cultivate a robust suite of privately owned and shared low-carbon options to meet mobility needs, particularly in the face of unprecedented disruptions.

Kathy Zhang is a research affiliate at Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. More recently, she worked on decarbonizing urban transport at Uber by expanding its bike and scooter share programs globally. Previously, Kathy directed operations and special projects at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and led communications at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She also founded Columbia’s Sustainability Media Lab and serves as the current president of Columbia’s Undergraduate Sustainable Development Alumni Board. Kathy holds a Master of International Affairs with a focus on Urban & Tech Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Development, both from Columbia University.

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