Publication: September 2020
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Authors: Università degli Studi Roma Tre: Edoardo Marcucci, Giacomo Lozzi, Valerio Gatta
Panteia B.V: Maria Rodrigues, Tharsis Teoh, Carolina Ramos, Eline Jonkers

Key findings
  • Authorities and operators all over the world had to respond quickly to the pandemic, finding rapid and efficient solutions to guarantee safe mobility.
  • The use of public transport and shared mobility services decreased dramatically during and immediately after the lockdown, while citizens prefer(red) private vehicles such as cars and bicycles, but also walking.
  • Last mile freight distribution has proven to be an essential service during the lockdown, providing food and goods to households. E-commerce is likely to keep growing.
  • The evolution of urban mobility trends will depend on the pre-COVID-19 situation of each city and country and on policies that will be promoted at the European, national and local level. Four scenarios have been identified.
  • All EU interventions for a full recovery of mobility and connectivity cannot ignore the challenges already recognised in EU strategies, namely the Green Deal.
  • Multimodality and radical modal shift will occur if policy-makers integrate the offer of new and traditional mobility services within local transport policies.
  • Data sharing and interoperability is needed to manage safety-related aspects such as physical distancing, contactless transactions, and flexible timetables.
State of play: effects of the lockdown on urban mobility

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The pandemic has greatly impacted a number of different economic sectors, including transport, travel and mobility. The emergency has obliged several governments to prohibit unnecessary mobility circulation, and to adapt the mobility of essential workers and goods in order to safeguard health and contain the spread of the virus. Authorities and operators all over the world had to act quickly, finding rapid and efficient solutions to guarantee safe mobility. All of these measures have had a significant impact, perturbing the traditional assets of mobility (roads, kerbside, sidewalks, public transport and shared mobility services) and shaping new trends.

Mitigation measures during lockdown

The overcrowding of public transport (PT) stations and vehicles represents a high-level risk of contagion, therefore governments and local authorities implemented restriction measures to limit their use. The main priority has been to guarantee safety and protection of staff and infrastructures. In most cases, drivers and personnel have been provided with specific training and personal protective equipment (face mask, gloves etc.)[1]. In general, many initiatives have been directed to avoid the contact between personnel and passengers, for example, forbidding ticket sales by drivers and incentivising e-ticketing, as well as the closure of the front door, thereby ensuring that people board at the back of the bus only. Measures have also been taken with regard to the safety and health of passengers. The core concern relates to physical distancing, so several transport authorities limited the capacity of the vehicles in order to guarantee safe distances between people (for example Milan and Barcelona reduced occupancy to a maximum of 25% and 50%, respectively, Ireland to 20%, Portugal to 2/3, etc.) and passengers are obliged to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Regarding demand management, it has not been a substantial challenge during phase 1[2], due to the fact that in many countries passengers were limited to essential workers or specific categories due to restrictive interventions, while all the others were asked to stay home and telework where possible.

Shared mobility systems faced challenges too. The high-level risk of sharing vehicles with other people pushed many firms to halt their services. Uber stopped pooling rides in some markets, and Lyft did it in all of its operational areas. The latter also tried to face the collapse of work by offering its drivers to work for Amazon as shoppers, warehouse workers or as drivers. The virus had an impact on micro-mobility (bike sharing, scooter sharing, etc.) too: Lime stopped its services in 23 out of the 30 countries it served and Uber (Jump) and Bird (Circ) stopped their operations in almost all European countries. Contrary to this, Budapest introduced temporary nearly free fares for their MOL Bubi bike sharing service, if only for the first harder phase of the lockdown.

Regarding urban freight distribution, the primary critical issue related to the lack of staff and stocks, due to reduced or cancelled production during the lockdown. However, movements of goods have not stopped. In particular, last mile distribution had a fundamental role providing food, medications and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG)[3] to people locked in their homes. Many countries, such as Italy, adopted protocols providing behavioural measures for logistic personnel to safeguard them and the consumers. The main recommendations were contactless interactions between operators and drivers during loading/unloading activities, contactless deliveries without signatures and to encourage shifts and separated groups of warehouse workers. In Saragoza, authorities permitted loading and unloading of goods 24h a day 7 days a week, in order to help logistic operators and to reduce pressure on one of the most important essential facilitiy during the lockdown.  Due to the demand for groceries being higher during lockdowns, in Eindhoven, authorities allowed supermarket distributors to operate 24h per day, facilitating a better and safer distribution throughout the day and avoiding traffic jams. For the same reason, in London, the Mayor asked Transport for London to postpone the enforcement of the low emission zone (LEZ) for freight vehicles. In Paris, an electric van sharing service has been strengthened for businesses who had to deliver goods.  Access regulation into stores has also been widely established in many countries, requiring limitations to the presence of customers purchase-time limitations, and self-protective measures such as masks, rubber gloves, hand sanitisation, etc.

[1] Examples: Portugal, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, Greece, Romania, Austria, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia.
[2] Phase 1, or epidemic phase, consisted of national lockdown measures, which in many European countries have meant an almost total closure of non-essential commercial activities and a reduction in people’s freedom of movement. Phase 2 consists of a progressive reduction of the containment measures of phase 1. For an overview of global lockdowns click here.
[3] FMCG refers to widely sold consumer goods such as food, toiletries, soaps, cosmetics, detergents and other non-durable products such as light bulbs, batteries and disposable plastic household products. Source:

Overview of the mobility trends

The data-sets from Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports and Apple’s Mobility Trends Reports are important sources providing trends on people mobility during the pandemic. Data highlights that high-income countries experienced the highest levels of mobility reduction, in term of PT station access. For what concerns transport modes across the world (62 countries and 89 cities included in the analysis), PT reached the lowest point of -76% in April, whereas the drop in driving reached -65% and walking -67% based on the queries of people asking for directions in Apple’s navigation app.

Requests for transport modes Changes of mobility trends

INRIX analyses the mobility trends compared to an average Jan-Feb baseline in term of vehicles-miles travelled (VMT), comparing some European countries. Data show that Italy was the first country to experience the reduction of VMT due to the early lockdown. Spain experienced the highest drop, reaching a level of only 12% VMT compared to pre-COVID-19 time.

Vehicle-miles travelled, Western Europe

Moreover, some studies on Google’s and Apple’s data highlight that, to date, private car transport has more than recovered from the January situation – perhaps also due to holiday travel, deferred trips (shopping for non-essential items, visiting relatives, running errands, doctor visits etc. ) and switching from PT to cars for fear of catching the virus –  while PT and walking are trundling along l.

Additionally, the pandemic deeply influenced urban freight transport trends, particularly during lockdowns. The fact that goods had to continue to move in such a difficult situation and with completely changed trajectories generated a strong pressure on the entire supply chain. 60% of e-commerce firms declared that there were delays or delay announcements in deliveries due to several obstacles along the chain. Indeed, the higher demand of e-commerce products generated some challenges for logistics and service providers, related to limited logistic staff, lack of production and new safety rules.

In Paris, although around 75% of B2C delivery companies reported a drop in activity, the increase in e-commerce, in particular for the food sector, has been between 10% and 40% compared to the pre-crisis levels. Bpost, the Belgian company responsible for postal servicesrecorded a sharp increase in parcel deliveries compared to the pre-quarantine situation (+ 60% all types of sectors combined). The areas that observed the major increase in revenue were groceries, personal prevention equipment and medicines. In China, Carrefour registered increments up to +600% and the Chinese online retailer up to +215% in revenues between January and February, while in France, e-groceries grew 38% in the week following March 12. In Spain, according to the logistic operator SEUR, the demand for 1-2 hour rapid deliveries for groceries increased by about 50%.. In Italy, grocery and supermarkets witnessed online revenue increases of +300%, to the point that many retailers had to limit purchases to first necessity goods and to put long virtual queues up to 1-2 hours due to the high demand. Several branches of the main logistic operators were closed and even Amazon had to ration deliveries from the end of March.

Road deaths decreased to an unprecedented level, but not to the same degree as traffic volume. Since the roads were empty during the lockdown, many drivers have adopted reckless driving. Speeding increased in several countries, as well as other traffic offences, while police were busy enforcing lockdown restrictions.

Heatmap of Floating Car Data in Rome
Short term trends and measures post lockdown

The easing of lockdown measures generated some new challenges for urban environments. Although in the short-term streets did not experience the same pre-COVID-19 levels of movement, activities slowly resumed. Local authorities had to act to guarantee physical distancing and safety standards, and often the solutions tested during the emergency proved  also to be suitable measures to pave the way for greener mobility, such as speed reduction measures, pop-up bike lanes, open streets and kerbside management. However, transport has been deeply affected from a financial perspective, therefore the EU and Member States had to intervene through financial and other support measures.

Reopening and reactive measures

In the first period following the lockdown phase, cities had to face the challenges stemming from the partial recovery of mobility. The reopening of several economic activities represented a high risk of congestion, principally in relation to PT. Overcrowding of vehicles and stations could cause contagion rates to rise again. Some cities like Beijing started testing digital booking solutions to control flows and avoid excessive demand. Additionally, Catalonia accelerated the deployment of the Autocorb app, which provides people with the occupancy level of approaching buses in real time, making it possible to balance supply and demand without overcrowding. Other cities, such as Hamburg, adopted a flexible approach, providing more rides on the busiest routes and reducing services with lower demand. The City of Rotterdam, together with some micromobility partners, provided 1,500 shared bikes and 1,500 electric shared scooters, available in 25 transit hubs to prevent crowding on public transit.

Cycling has been one of the main responses at global level; its role was prominent already during the lockdowns and increased further with the easing of measures. Cycling could represent an alternative to PT, but also to private car rides. Bikes sales have experienced a boom almost everywhere: in the UK, year on year sales increased +677%; in the U.S., the uplift of demand caused shortages already at the end of April. In general, bike supply struggles to adapt to demand in many countries. Use of cargo bikes, i.e. bikes used for freight delivery, increased too in 2020: the results of the first European Cargo Bike Industry Survey show that the sector expects a market growth of 53% compared to 2019. Many countries like Denmark and Germany released public recommendations to avoid private car use and PT, and to cycle or walk instead. Italy offers a 60% cash back up to €500 for bicycle or e-bike purchase to incentivise this shift, while in France the Government offered a €50 incentive to repair bicycles. In Amsterdam, the municipality provided 1,600 bikes for students to ensure safe travel and to discourage the use of PT. Lisbon allocated some funds to the purchase of bikes, and also for creating additional bike lanes. Some cities such as Austin and San Francisco even permitted bike shops to be open during restriction measures, thus considering them essential facilities.

The European Commission guidelines on restoring transport post-lockdown include considerations for active travel. In relation to space reallocation, the guidelines specify that “urban areas could consider temporary enlargements of pavements and increased space for active mobility options”. The guidelines also recommend “reducing speed limits of vehicles in increased active mobility areas”.

In different countries, cities such as Berlin, Leeds, Paris, Brussels etc.,  created temporary pop-up bike lanes to provide safer spaces for cyclists and to relieve the PT system. In Italy, the city of Bologna has accelerated works for an additional 348 km of cycle paths, with their construction being already foreseen in their Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP), and counts on completing 60% of them before the end of 2020.

Other types of measures are broader, addressing urban space and alternative usage of kerbsides that have been taken away from cars and given to pedestrians and cyclists. The COVID Mobility Works database maps over 170 of these so-called “open streets” initiatives. Brussels implemented a mobility plan to put people first, changing usage priorities of public space, for instance in the Pentagon, an area of the city centre where the pavements have been opened to the transit of cyclists and pedestrians and the speed limit for cars has been reduced to 20 km/h to safeguard active travellers in such a shared space. Something similar happened in Edinburgh, where Creating Safe Spaces for Walking and Cycling initiative was launched to give priority to active mobility instead of private transport during the lockdown, and to facilitate PT recovery. Also Vienna opened 14 “temporary encounter zones” to pedestrian transit in areas where density is particularly high and there are narrow sidewalks. In May, the city of Milan released its Open Streets project, which seeks to prioritise movement on foot and by bike. In Dublin, some parking lots have been substituted for new cycle racks, whilst in Oxford, parking lanes have been turned into rest areas. In addition, some cities allowed cafes and restaurants to take more space for tables using kerbsides, whilst in Cardiff they have been converted into shop queue line spaces.

The pandemic has also fostered contactless deliveries, reducing virus transmission rates. In Wuhan (China), the epicentre of the pandemic, where the lockdown was particularly strict[1], JD made use of autonomous vehicles for delivering supplies to hospitals and made use of drones to provide goods to nearby villages. The emergency is boosting the drone delivery market: kiwibot, a delivery robot startup, increased its fleet from 20 to 50 and serves two cities in California, and two in Colombia and Taiwan, while another 500 units are in production. Japan will carry out some trials of rolling out drones next September, and France carried out some trials in Montpellier, testing Twinswheel’s droids for mail deliveries. Wing, Google’s drone delivery service, observed an increase in interest during the coronavirus pandemic, with a demand increase of +350% globally from February to April, whilst diversifying more types of goods eligible for deliveries. In Ohio, a food delivery initiative through robots helped students carrying supplies into the University campus and supporting them with the “stay home order”.

[1] The Chinese government ordered to shut down all non-essential companies, including manufacturing plants, and all schools in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is situated.

Behavioural and attitudinal trends

The most significant change in behaviour, which had an impact not only on mobility but on people’s lives, was staying at home – and therefore working from there when possible – during the lockdown period. As a result, commuting trips in many countries have been limited (mainly) to those of essential workers, such as doctors and nurses, supermarket employees, freight forwarders, etc. In the short to medium term, many employers, encouraged or impelled by the authorities, have continued to require their employees to work from home, to avoid crowding the roads and PT networks during peak hours. The general trend,  according to the preferences of a vast amount of workers, is a combination of working from home and going to the office at flexible times, to foster better demand management and a flattening of the critical peaks.

When in need of moving, people favoured ways that guaranteed adequate physical distancing, such as walking, cycling or the use of private cars, while there was a drop in the use of PT and shared transport. In particular, the use of bicycles, as evidenced by the boom in purchases in the post-lockdown phase, has been chosen by citizens as a means that can combine safety and physical activity, longed for by many during the closure of all sports activities. However, it must be considered that, while in many countries the habit of cycling is consolidated, in others the advent of winter could discourage its use.

The increase in the use of private cars, associated with an indisputable high level of safety, is not sustainable neither at an environmental level, nor at the level of stress on the transport network and therefore of congestion. If the purchase of cars during the lockdown was impossible, advertising and marketing campaigns are now highlighting the safety advantage of buying a private car. Furthermore, many countries, fearful of the negative economic and employment impacts of the crisis on the automotive industry, are providing state aid to the sector (see section 2.3).

Online shopping continues to grow, and the pandemic has resulted in the significant acceleration and penetration into customer segments that were previously not concerned. 51% of Belgians who have bought food online for the first time say they will continue to do so after the pandemic. The way of receiving parcels is partly shifting from home (in pre and during lockdown), to automatic lockers, preferred by both logistics service providers and consumers for contactless delivery methods.

YouGov survey responses per country

The pandemic and the relative lockdown measures highlighted a new consciousness that citizens have about their cities’ pollution. The emissions drop all over the world during the quarantines have made people reconsider health as a priority. A YouGov survey, carried out between 14 and 21 May 2020 and covering 21 cities across 6 European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K. and Belgium), shows that 64% of respondents agreed that they do not want to return to pre-pandemic air pollution levels, and around three quarters (74%) of respondents said that cities must take effective measures to protect citizens from air pollution. 68% of them said they agree with fighting air pollution through policies such as car restrictions, and 78% said they want safer spaces for active mobility, such as cycling and walking, and PT. As shown in Figure 4, these attitudes differ depending on the country: over 80% of Italian and Spanish dwellers, who have experienced the harder lockdown, agree that their cities must take action to curb air pollution by giving more space to walking, cycling and PT.  Similar surveys also provide parallel results, and all these data together represent a first significant manifestation of attitude change from citizens toward more liveable and healthier cities.

State aids and financial support to the transport sector

Article 107(3)(b) TFEU of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union foresees that, in case of particularly severe economic situations, EU State aid rules allow Member States to grant support to remedy a serious disturbance to their economy. On 19 March, the EC adopted the Temporary Framework for State Aid measures to support the economy in the COVID-19 outbreak. This provides some exceptions to the EU regulations regarding State aid in different sectors particularly affected by COVID-19, with a dedicated section of rules applicable to transport and tourism. All schemes relating to the transport sector must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. To address urgent liquidity needs in particular of small and medium-sized enterprises in a rapid way, Member States may give support of up to the nominal value of €800,000 per undertaking in the form of direct grants, loans, tax and payment advantages, or other forms such as guarantees on loans covering 100% of the risk. Many countries like Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Cyprus, Finland, France, Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Sweden and Germany provided assistance to national companies. Most of them specifically addressed the air transport system, due to the huge negative impact in term of revenues that this sector experienced during the lockdown. Some countries approved state aid packages to stabilise and support firms operating in transport of people and goods. Lithuania introduced a direct grant scheme to support small and medium size enterprises working in road freight transport that contributes to managing financial risks, paying loans and maintaining financial stability. The Netherlands adopted a €160 million scheme to compensate companies offering alternative rides to PT to specific categories of passengers particularly damaged from the virus outbreak. Germany implemented a €6 billion scheme to compensate PT companies for damages suffered due to coronavirus outbreak. More cases are available here.

Moreover, many countries adopted some policies, including financial support, for the relaunch of mobility in their cities. UK Department for International Development established a £1 million “COVID-19 Response & Recovery Transport Research Fund” to support research on innovation, technology and guidelines for the recovery of the transport sector. Several countries are allocating a significant amount of funds to address dwellers behaviour and transport assets towards a greener orientation. Italy allocated funds to reimburse PT passes to passengers that couldn’t make use of the service during the lockdown (€5 million), to incentivise the transition to sustainable solutions, such as electric vehicles, e-bikes and e-scooters (€100 million) through an eco-bonus, and to compensate revenue drop of PT (€500 million). In the attempt to back the temporary initiatives taken by single cities, some countries have financed temporary solutions, such as pedestrian areas and pop-up bike lanes to make these the base for the long-term recovery of mobility. The Île-de-France Region allocated €300 million to support the RER Velo Project, providing more kilometres of bicycle lanes to connect the major hubs of the region. Scotland allocated £10 million to support pop-up active travel infrastructures for bike lanes and pedestrian area improvements.

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Selection of figures:
Mapping sidewalk width in Milan
Reduced mobility demand by transport mode and by country during the COVID-19 crisis

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