Pandemic Prompts Lasting Changes in Mobility Patterns Across the Globe

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our behavior and transport energy use patterns in ways that experts with the International Energy Agency and the World Bank say could be lasting. The crisis has touched all forms of transport, from cars and public transport in cities, to buses, trains and planes nationally and internationally.

Restrictions put in place to limit the viral spread have had a widespread impact on people’s lives and mobility, changing the way energy is used across entire economies.

The pandemic has disrupted the transport sector, undermining the reliability and efficiency of transport networks, particularly in trucking and air cargo, warned three writers on the World Bank blog in late September.

 

”BECAUSE FREIGHT TRANSPORT OPERATIONS, LOGISTICS, AND THE PRODUCTION OF GOODS ARE SO TIGHTLY SYNCHRONIZED, THESE DISRUPTIONS HAVE CREATED A RIPPLE EFFECT ON GLOBAL COMMERCE, EXPOSING THE FRAGILITY OF THE ENTIRE SUPPLY CHAIN.”

 

"Because freight transport operations, logistics, and the production of goods are so tightly synchronized, these disruptions have created a ripple effect on global commerce, exposing the fragility of the entire supply chain," José Viegas, former secretary-general, International Transport Forum, and two World Bank staffers blogged on the World Bank site. "Globally, we have seen shortages in the availability of medical supplies, raw materials, sub-assemblies, and finished goods, as well as logistical issues and inventory build-up."

Movement of goods is not the only thing that the pandemic has changed.

"One of the biggest impacts has been the reduction in passenger transport demand, due to a combination of government lockdowns and fears of contracting and spreading the virus when using mass transport modes," finds the International Energy Agency (IEA) in a May 2020 report.

Global road transport activity was almost 50 percent below the 2019 average by the end of March 2020. Commercial flight activity was almost 75 percent below 2019 by mid-April 2020.

Public transport has been undermined as travelers afraid of the virus choose other modes of transportation. For instance, the strict lockdown imposed in the UK in March 2020 has led to a 95 percent decrease in underground journeys in London.

Data from one popular transport planning smartphone app shows that trips are down by over 90 percent since the crisis began in many of the world’s major cities.

 

‘Dread Behavior’ Patterns Set Now Could Last for Years

These effects may last for a long time, as fear of contracting the virus on mass transit prompts travelers to switch transport modes, a phenomenon called dread behavior.

In the city of Wuhan, China where the COVID-19 outbreak first emerged, since the lockdown was lifted, bike-sharing services have seen tenfold increases in ride orders compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The IEA report quotes the UK’s Association of Cycle Traders' report of a boom in mending as people retrieve old bicycles from their sheds, while one of the largest bike suppliers in the United States ran out of stock on some of its top selling models as sales have surged.

And UK Transport Minister Eamon Ryan has confirmed that e-scooters will be legalized next year without localized trials U.S. cities such as New York report a substantial increase in cycling. The number of cyclists more than doubled over pre-pandemic levels in Philadelphia.

The IEA projects that after the lockdowns are lifted and the virus has abated, these shifts in transport behavior could grow more permanent, especially if commuters see them as less risky than riding public transportation.

And, as the perceived risks of travelling via public transport linger and the weather turns colder, people are likely to seek out more energy-intensive transport options than cycling.

 

As Lockdowns Lift, Cars Begin to Guzzle Gas Again

As countries begin to lift their stay-at-home orders, signs are emerging that some degree of switching back to more energy-intensive transport modes is likely. In one survey of consumer sentiment, 20 percent of people who regularly used buses, subways or trains said they no longer would, while 17 percent of people indicated they would use their car more due to COVID-19.

Far from ushering in the beginning of peak oil demand, dread behaviors in response to the pandemic could spark a rebound in transport-related oil use when countries finally end their lockdowns.

Governments can help people avoid unintended consequences that can flow from dread behavior and more accurately assess the risks associated with their transport choices, including virus exposure, transport accidents, and the economic, environmental and health impacts of congestion, says the IEA report.

Fears of COVID-19 have helped increase car sales above 2019 levels in South Korea in both March and April 2020, while in Beijing morning peak-hour traffic has been above normal levels as commuters opt to drive over risking infection on public transport.

 

The Asian Development Bank's Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development Bambang Susantono wrote on the bank's website in August, "...in Manila, where my organization, the Asian Development Bank, is headquartered, traffic plunged 80 percent overnight after the lockdown was declared on 15 March."

"Before the COVID-19 pandemic, transport contributed to about 23 percent of global carbon emissions. Road traffic and aviation are the main contributors of emissions from transport, accounting for 72 percent and 11 percent of the transport sector greenhouse gas emissions, respectively," Susantono wrote.

 

"Although drastic lockdown measures around the world have brought world economies to their knees," he wrote, "satellites have recorded compelling data on how the concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and air pollutants have fallen drastically, bringing clear blue skies to many cities."

As new mobility patterns emerge with this crisis, such as even greater and mroe widespread increases in bicycle use than in previous crises, building on the lessons learned in the past could help ensure that sustainable transport behaviors persist.

 

”THE PANDEMIC HAS ALSO HIGHLIGHTED THE NEED FOR MORE ROBUST TRANSPORT SYSTEM THAT IS GREEN AND RESILIENT TO FUTURE DISASTERS,” WROTE BAMBANG SUSANTONO OF THE ASIAN DEVELOPMENT BANK.”

 

“Technological advances, big data, artificial intelligence, digitalization, automation, and renewables and electric power can potentially offer fresh innovations to tackle changing needs, giving rise to smarter transportation," Susantono wrote.

Most importantly, previous crises show that supporting policies are needed to promote sustainable behaviors and avoid negative consequences that can flow from people’s calculus of risk in the wake of a crisis. At a time when people are feeling vulnerable, says the IEA, policies that increase trust in the safety of sustainable transport options are particularly important.

 

Sources: International Energy Agency report, Statements from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Assn. of Cycle Traders UK.

Journalist, founder of Environment News Service (ENS) at: ens-newswire.com, and expert in the field of sustainable mobility in the United States and around the Pacific Rim

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