What is Urban Mobility learning from COVID-19?

Cities account for more than 55 percent of the world’s population, as part of a rapidly growing trend that forces us to face challenges in every aspect of urban society: real estate and rental prices are increasing, urban mobility is increasingly challenging, pollution is becoming an important issue, and many others.

The urban mobility problem hovers over major cities. Traffic jams and high levels of pollution are present in every major city, and can account for up to 2-4 percent of national GDP in advanced economies due to lost time, fuel wastage, or the increased costs of doing business. Congestion has risen by 14 percent in London since 2010, 36% in Los Angeles, 30% in New York, and 9% in Paris and Beijing.

Increasing road capacity in city accesses has proven to be a short-term congestion relief: they tend to saturate again fast. City accesses are always congested, regardless of the road capacity, because demand is always on the rise. In fact, congestion works as an urban mobility regulator.

If increasing mobility options (urban road expansion) is not the solution to congestion, how could we manage the demand? During the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, most of us have started to work from home, reducing commuting dramatically. So, could we reduce mobility demand steadily by working remotely?

At the beginning of current COVID-19 crisis, we witnessed a sharp drop of light vehicle traffic levels during peak-hours. In Madrid, a week prior to the general house confinement, peak-hour traffic levels dropped by 14.3% in the city center (inside the M30 ring road) and by 21% outside the M30, following the closure of educational institutions in the province. This closure forced many parents to stop commuting to their workplaces, and commence teleworking to take care of their children.

Heading further into the COVID-19 crisis, heavier confinement restrictions across Europe show road traffic dropping between 40% and 80%. The situation has forced many businesses to impose working from home regulations as the solution to the crisis, requiring both employers and employees to adapt to teleworking regardless of their preferences. In this context, people and businesses are rapidly adapting their processes and resources to the new working scenario. As a result, since the COVID-19 crisis started, there is no longer a “peak hour” in Madrid’s traffic, and pollution levels have decreased by 35%.

Once we go back to normal, societies must take advantage of the teleworking momentum. In the aftermath of an unforeseen and tragic scenario, teleworking could become the biggest ally of cleaner skies and empty roads.

About the authors
César Valero is a Civil Engineer, holds an MBA, and is a Partner at ALG.
Lorenzo Rubio holds a BSc. in Civil Engineering and is a Consultant at ALG.
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