EIT Urban Mobility


How to restart the system after the pandemic?

The disruptive way COVID-19 broke into our commuting habits revealed a unique opportunity for reshaping urban space. Daniel Serra, Marta Alvarez and Mateusz Kałuża argue that, to collectively restart the urban mobility system, we all have to dust off the lost simplicity of old cities and push it into a future reinforced with technology

VORA: Safe Occupiable Limit for Tactical Public Space Extension - Elisava Research (Roger Paez, PI), ©  Adrià Goula, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND

It is now over one year since COVID-19, a hitherto unknown strain of coronavirus, started to become headline news. Although at the beginning most reflections concerned health and safety issues, it slowly became clear that its implications would continue to affect all our daily habits. Indeed, this highly unexpected experience made over 70% of the European population living in densely inhabited urban areas realise the real value of freedom, especially of movement.

For governments, there is still no clear answer where the balance exists between security measures and uninterrupted accessibility to services. Moreover, we are exposed to the continuous negative impact of climate change that intensively reminds us of the urgent need to intensify actions towards sustainable development. Within this frame, passenger and freight transport – having a significant share in the urban air, water, and soil pollution – must be prioritised and tackled multidimensionally. The EIT Urban Mobility, an initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union, is aware of these challenges and works hand-in-hand with citizens to emphasize users´ needs in the on-going mobility transformation through innovation and dialogue with all mobility stakeholders.

COVID-19 in urban areas: Troublesome question or a life-saving flashlight?

In the mobility sector, the change due to the COVID-19 outbreak was instantaneous. The world stopped, and all means of transport that helped people to get from A to B followed the freezing wave. Since then, a shortcut to bring the pre-pandemic reality back has been a top priority for service providers, including cities, for which the transport sector directly ensures the day-to-day running of the city itself. As of now, it seems that the post-pandemic city will (luckily) never be the same – by temporarily sacrificing our mobility, we received a high-quality demonstration of benefits resulting from the lack or significantly reduced traffic. Exceptionally low concentration of greenhouse gases in the air, and the reduction of noise and accidents are among the examples that societies were fighting against for many years. COVID-19 offered the possibility to break with our unsustainable habits without looking back. On the other hand, however, there are emerging trends that we need to monitor closely. For instance, an increase of e-commerce that is quashing our local commerce.

For governments, there is still no clear answer where the balance exists between security measures and uninterrupted accessibility to services

EIT Urban Mobility Advertising, ©  EIT Urban Mobility

Travel in time. Press the red button to re-start the system

By pushing the red button to reorganise the mobility landscape of cities, the aim is to accelerate and ensure the development and deployment of integrated, eco-efficient and safe mobility solutions. This new reality, instead of uploading just a patched update, must turn the clock around and bring us back to the 19th century – before the first oil boom, when streets belonged to the citizens as safe, green getaways stretched between buildings.

Nowadays, between the hyperconnected space and massive human flows, the task of balancing multiple, short-term needs has become overwhelming and requires deep analysis supported by highly trained algorithms, big data and artificial intelligence. With global connectivity, technology will enable the urban mobility system to better solve the problems that cities are facing and that are not able to address alone. Together with a strengthened multi-stakeholder collaboration focused on exploring innovation, the full potential of solutions trapped in complexity might be unlocked.

Permanent Disinfection with an experimental solution on a Barcelona Underground carriage window, © TMB (Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona)

One of the goals of the Horizon Europe programme is to achieve climate-neutral, smart cities that will improve the quality of life of cities´ inhabitants

Now, the long-term vision with short-term milestones

To be complete and aimed at successful innovation, the equation has to include proper implementation tracking and impact assessment – as a single product or a specific service will not solve the climate change equation all at once. Although the deployment or market launch is definitely a success both for creators and citizens, it is the repetitive question about the next step which allows us to move forward. To not lose the focus, the long-term strategy unifying cities at national and European level must be enclosed in a set of short-term, targeted goals. For instance, public transport must first be digitalised and integrated to available Mobility as a Service (MaaS) systems and last-mile services to create a flexible, multimodal offer to the passenger. Such platforms need to be further optimised to leave the static model behind, providing on-demand and fast adaptable features. The whole process requires legal support with clear regulations that are updated on a regular basis. For this particular example, and for the majority of urban challenges in general, the technology is already in-situ. Meanwhile, the pandemic revealed the needs and pointed out at the importance of citizens´ behaviour to which the solutions must be adapted. Now, the cities´ leadership is required to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together into a coherent picture, and EIT Urban Mobility wants to empower local actors to tackle these issues.

InclusivEbike: a new concept of rickshaw e-bikes oriented to increase inclusiveness of vulnerable people, ©  Bilbao City Council

In the EU, cities are not alone

EIT Urban Mobility is a part of a big, financial funnel created by the European Commission to boost innovation. The last-minute Recovery and Resilience Plans to be prepared by the EU Member States by the end of April 2021, together with Green Deal and Horizon Europe (continuation of Horizon 2020) are already in place, and open enormous possibilities for all of those who can envision and change the urban landscape for a less polluted and human-centred vision. One of the goals of the Horizon Europe programme is to achieve climate-neutral, smart cities that will improve the quality of life of cities´ inhabitants. Indeed, the 15-minute city plan from Paris, a 10-year strategy built around Superblocks in Barcelona or the model of the Doughnut Economy from Amsterdam, demonstrate that citizens can be placed at the core when sketching the streets of our future cities.

Daniel Serra, Marta Alvarez and Mateusz Kałuża are respectively Director, Communications Manager and Trainee (MSc Energy for Smart Cities) at EIT Urban Mobility Hub South.

EIT Urban Mobility is an initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union.

Daniel.serra@eiturbanmobility.eu, marta.alvarez@eiturbanmobility.eu and mateusz.kaluza@eiturbanmobility.eu

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