Thanks to the reflections in this series by different researchers at Orkestra, we are seeing that the crisis caused by COVID-19 has multiple and complex implications for society, businesses and institutions. The truth is that the common factor that defines this current episode in our lives is personal side of things. The uncertainty about health and the economy, disrupted projects, the distances of a few streets that now seem infinite and, above all, the deep sadness of not being able to say goodbye to those who leave us.

In saying so, I'm going to approach this issue just like that, from a personal point of view. And I'm going to refer to a conversation I had the other day with my grandmother, confined to her flat in Oviedo, in one of those calls we all make to relatives to relax the isolation. She told me that she had been surprised to learn that in Abandames, her remote hometown in the far east of Asturias, there had not been a single case of the virus. "How is that possible?" she wondered. It’s something that happens in thousands of towns around the world, impervious to the pandemic, protecting many of our elders.


Worlds both large and small, but connected

In contrast to the small, sparsely populated and communicated areas, cities are especially vulnerable environments in this crisis due to agglomeration and connectivity, as pointed out in this same series by M.Albizu and M.Estensoro a few days ago. These two factors are closely related to the mobility of people and goods, which in a broad sense includes vehicles, infrastructure (road and energy), transport management and, increasingly, information and communication technologies (ICT). But first and foremost, people.

The UN estimates that the world's population living in cities will increase from 55% in 2018 to 68% in 2050. Growing urbanisation, 90% of which will take place in Asia and Africa, poses a challenge in relation to large cities, their connectivity and future crisis management. Mobility is therefore at the heart of this challenge, now and in the long term.

Normally, having an extensive mobility system is a competitive advantage, but these days it has become a facilitator of infection. The drastic reduction of transport is one of the main pillars of reaction policies. And this forces us to face the dilemma of maintaining the functionality of an essential system, and at the same time preparing ourselves to live without it, while reducing the socioeconomic impact as much as possible.

This is transversal to cities, regions and States. One of the most illustrative examples is the reduction of air traffic. Its sharp fall exemplifies how transport is positioned as one of the most affected sectors, and whose disruption has great impacts on global supply chains and countless economic activities. The lack of movement represents a bottleneck that contributes to the feedback cycle between economic supply and demand shocks, as MJ. Aranguren pointed out at the beginning of this series, and has a major influence on the global oil market (see the analysis by J.Fernandez).



A forced change of perspective

At the urban and business level, the need to slow down travel as well as the health recommendations that give priority to individual transport, put in check one of the great objectives of sustainable mobility: the prioritisation of a public transport system, intermodal and capable of covering a wide variety of needs and geographies.

Like a flash, in just a few days it has become imperative to "individualise" mobility and reduce occupancy rates. This is a shock for transport operators, especially private operators, and it affects not only collective transport but also another of the great trends in mobility: sharing. Some of these modes (carsharing, bikesharing¸ carpooling, etc.), which were demonstrating social and generational changes, and for which various companies were innovating business models, are in this situation facing the paradox of combining the social and common with distancing.

Overall, the fall in public transport activity in Spain has been the strongest among the member countries of the International Transport Forum (ITF), with a fall of 88% compared to the average fall of 64%.

Fall in activity in public transport hubs within ITF member countries. Source: ITF (2020).


Opportunity is waiting

This situation is the result of the current shocks and forms part of the stage to stop the spread of the virus. But on the horizon, is the stage of recovery, in which we must face the socioeconomic effects. And here mobility will not only have to return to its usual role, but it can also be a space for innovation to improve future responses.

Firstly, because the concept of safety is increasingly inherent to a sustainable concept of mobility. The evolution of vehicles, road safety, etc. has always pointed in the direction of accident prevention. However, the growing sensorisation, the implementation of 5G or the development of the autonomous vehicles aim to make a great leap forward in this area. Moreover, the different trends in sustainable mobility have been opening this concept to other circumstances such as protection of vulnerable groups or integrating the gender perspective. So why not include health safety as well? The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) considers that, to improve the effectiveness of pandemic planning, this cannot be an isolated project and should be integrated into existing procedures, as well as involving business units.

Secondly, intermodality and innovation in new forms of transport provide flexibility with untapped potential. For example, FREE NOW (the taxi service within the joint venture in which Car2Go is integrated) or Cabify have launched a modality for “heroes in gowns", which is one of many examples of the sector’s adaptation. The experience gained by cities in bikesharing may also be a fair bid for progressive decontamination.

An example of the modality of transport with driver for "heroes in gowns" (free service, the price of 1 euro is due to the app’s technical requirements). Source: Jaime Rodríguez de Santiago.

Adapting transport capabilities and the use of innovative forms are among the measures that the ITF is considering to keep mobility as effective as possible, which in future incidents could include autonomous vehicles to facilitate social distancing or increase the current use of drones. But realising the true potential of this versatility will require combining all elements of mobility; for example infrastructure, as proposed by the #InfrastructureCovid community.

A multidisciplinary vision combining heterogeneous sectors will be necessary, and for this purpose digitisation will play a fundamental role. An example of this approach can be found in the think tank #VEHICLES7YFN, promoted by AMETIC and which builds a bridge between Bilbao and Barcelona (via Stuttgart) to create synergies between very different agents.

This is an example of how the capacities of the Basque Country, and of other economies with a strong automotive sector presence, can turn the transport sector into an area for the development of opportunity niches. Thus, through innovation and the integration of a holistic perspective, mobility can contribute to the diversification within the economic foundation of the regions' capacity to renew themselves and prevent new crises (see reflection by E. Magro).

In short, mobility surrounds us and unites us. Which gives it a key role in the challenges that COVID-19 presents, while also facing a dilemma and a change of paradigm. But precisely because of this, there is great potential for the sector to contribute to improving solutions for economic recovery. Especially if this occurs in line with a green recovery, as it also presents as an opportunity to ensure that the reduction in emissions that we have surmised, albeit momentary, is really due to our effort and commitment, as M.Larrea hoped for in his blog. It is a great opportunity to be addressed among all our common problems. And yes, also to learn from the lessons that the smaller populations can bring us, such as Abandames, and to bet on closeness and localness.

Jaime Menéndez

Jaime Menéndez

Jaime joined the Institute as a Predoctoral Researcher at the Energy Lab in 2015. He has worked on the following projects: “Energy and Industrial Transition” and  Technology, Transport and Efficiency.

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