The Joint Research Centre (JRC) has published a report on 'Post-pandemic trends in urban mobility'. It's main finding is that whilst the Covid-19 pandemic triggered significant changes in lifestyles and mobility patterns (which were still evident at the end of 2022), it also raised challenges for transport policy in the short to medium term. While changes in lifestyles – mainly in relation to work patterns – decreased total urban transport activity, the gradual return to pre-pandemic levels suggests that traffic and congestion levels could soon exceed their 2019 levels.
The report identifies trends that influence modal choice and trip distances, with possible negative repercussions in terms of transport costs, congestion and emissions.
The analysis combined a range of data sources and methodologies:
- Changes in mobility patterns were identified using the JRC Travel Survey 2021;
- Traffic congestion levels were monitored through daily TomTom data from 178 cities in the EU;
- Public transport activity was measured using up-to-date statistics from national and local sources.
The role of active mobility was discussed using a model that estimated the potential uptake and benefits in terms of external costs, and information provided by the 362 candidate cities for the EU Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities allowed for an extensive review of transport policy measures that have been adopted at the city level. Finally, case studies from 40 European cities using multiple data sources provided an empirical confirmation of the main findings.
A snapshot of these include:
- A significant share of respondents were still working from home at the end of 2022 or avoided situations that increased health risks even after most restrictions were lifted, and this affected mobility choices in terms of trip frequency, destination and mode used.
- Cars increased their share as the preferred means of transport, while active mobility maintained its momentum that it gained during the pandemic.
- Public transport and emerging mobility options (ride hailing, car sharing, etc.) lost a significant number of users and saw their modal shares decrease.
- Traffic congestion was still milder at the end of 2022 compared to pre-pandemic 2019 levels, which was mainly the effect of the decrease in the total number of trips due to a high share of users still working from home but the share is, nevertheless, gradually getting closer to 2019 levels.
- The current trend in increased car use implies that – for most of the 178 monitored cities – congestion levels in 2023 or 2024 are likely to be comparable to those in 2019 if measures are not taken.
- Across the EU, public transport was particularly affected by the pandemic with several operators seeing a >50% fall in transport performance during 2020. Ridership has been slowly recovering but for most of the cities where data was available, the difference between 2019 levels is still in the order of 20-30%. This gap in demand causes significant financial and operational concerns and may threaten the sustainability of several service providers.
- Active mobility, on the other hand, benefitted from the behavioural changes stimulated by the pandemic, for example in some cities cycling became a main means of transport and this trend continued to the end of 2022. Walking also became popular for short trips.
- A growing number of cities have used the momentum to expand cycling infrastructure and pedestrian areas, attracting even more potential users.
The long-term challenges of improving local transport and achieving climate neutrality require concerted effort. The extensive sample of the 362 candidate cities for the EU Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities provided several examples of how a combination of measures – technological, planning and regulatory – are now needed and how the pandemic has increased the need for investment in public transport and active mobility.
The full report is available to download from the JRC website: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC133322
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