In the past few months we have seen our world transformed in ways never before seen in our lifetimes. We will continue to be negatively impacted for months, possibly years… but, what if something good could come out of this? What if we used this deeply arduous experience to transform certain aspects of our lives for the better? Like, for instance, addressing the impact of mobility on global warming? As others have said, we should not let a crisis go to waste. Let’s focus on Europe, which appears to be active across more fronts than other regions on this matter.
Forced confinement has drastically reduced road passenger transport activity across the globe. At its lowest points, it reached 38% of its normal level in Europe according to the International Energy Agency (see above). As economic activity continues to rebound, the fear of using public transportation could result in increased use of private vehicles in the short term. However, this is not sustainable in dense European cities as it would cause unbearable congestion.
The combined reduction in mobility and industrial activity also resulted in dramatically cleaner air, particularly in the most polluted regions. For instance, Paris saw a 60% drop in NO2 emissions and Spain’s 10 largest cities experienced a similar 64% decrease.
Citizens have (re)discovered clean air and clear skies. A recent pan-European survey showed that 64% of people do not want to go back to pre-Covid pollution levels. Similarly, 68% (63% among drivers) agreed that cities must take measures against air pollution, even if it means preventing polluting cars from entering city centres.
Urbanites have also come to appreciate quieter streets, and the ability to walk and cycle more freely in the absence of vehicles. Bike sales have spiked during the recent period, with the UK for example experiencing a bicycle shortage.
This provides a great opportunity for officials and urban planners to change the landscape and make some of these benefits permanent, all the more as other habits have also evolved, such as an almost inevitable increase in remote working.
At least two categories of initiatives have emerged to leverage this opportunity: a faster electrification of the vehicle fleet, and a lower reliance on vehicles inside our cities. New initiatives are being taken to address both dimensions at the city, national and EU levels.
Many cities reduce the role of cars in mobility
Several European cities have already taken actions to progressively ban older vehicles — and eventually all polluting ones — for example Paris, Stuttgart, Amsterdam and London.
The British capital already imposes a congestion charge to most vehicles driving in the city centre (£15 (13.40€) per day as of this month vs. £11.50 prior), and introduced an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019. Access to the ULEZ for diesel and petrol passenger vehicles respectively pre-2015 and pre-2006 costs £12.50 (11.20€) per day. Crucially, London has one of the best public transport systems in the world – useful leverage when enacting initiatives such as the ULEZ.
Among post-Covid initiatives, some consist in making permanent certain bike lanes that have replaced car lanes during confinement, or in banning cars on certain streets.
Cities such as Paris, Berlin, Milan, Brussels, and Barcelona have announced post-Covid plans which involve making bike lanes that temporarily replaced car lanes, in recent months, permanent. Some cities are even considering banning cars altogether on certain streets.
For instance, 35km of Milan streets will be converted over the summer for use by bikers and pedestrians. Paris’ current mayor has earmarked 20M€ to get people pedalling, also proposing to eliminate half of the street level parking capacity as part of a long battle against cars. Rome is planning 150km of bike lanes and Barcelona has removed parking from 21km of streets to make space for cyclists.
Elected officials are not the only ones to act. Communities are coming together to deploy Open Street Projects. The not-for-profit initiative provide advocacy, a toolkit, as well as an information database, all dedicated to open streets, i.e. temporarily closing streets to cars to make them available to people. While the project focuses on the USA, its international activities are increasing.
Countries take aim at electrification
Several countries have announced bans on polluting vehicles during the past 2 to 3 years. In 2017, Norway was the first nation to introduce a ban on the sale of new vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines, setting the deadline in 2025. Shortly thereafter, several European countries announced similar plans, e.g. France (2040), the UK (2040), Germany (2030) and the Netherlands (2030).
Stimulus programs, introduced across the globe to jumpstart economies, usually include funds to assist the automotive industry where its carbon footprint is significant. During the last recession, such programs focused on scrapping older vehicles, which helped improve average emission levels. This time, stimulus programs in Europe seem to focus more on incentivizing the sale of clean vehicles.
For instance, the French government announced an aggressive incentive plan. Buyers of electric vehicles (EVs) costing less than €45k will benefit from a €7k bonus (vs €6k previously). If they replace an older vehicle, either pre-2011 diesel or pre-2006 gasoline, the first 200k buyers receive an extra €5k.
Similarly, Germany’s €130 billion recovery plan includes a €6k incentive for the purchase of an EV as well as the obligation for all petrol stations to offer EV charging. The country is also considering increasing its motor vehicle tax on new vehicles emitting over 95 g CO2/km, even doubling it above 195 grams, whereas EVs would be exempt.
The EU’s recovery plan includes efforts toward cleaner mobility
Initiatives to reduce the impact of mobility on global warming were on the EU’s agenda before Covid-19 hit. They include CO2 regulations to reduce corporate averages from 120 grams of CO2/km to 95 grams in 2020, 81 grams in 2025 and 59 grams in 2030. A penalty of €95 per vehicle per gram beyond the threshold is currently applicable. For reference, 95 g CO2/km equate to 4.1 litres/100 km or 57.9 MPG for a petrol vehicle, and to 3.5 litres/100km or 66.5 MPG for a diesel.
As part of the EU’s stimulus plan, the € 750B “Next Generation EU” program aims at “repairing and preparing for the next generation.” A “Green Deal” is integral to this plan, with funding dedicated to cleaner transport and logistics. Objectives include the installation of one million charging points for EVs and a boost for rail travel and clean mobility in EU cities and regions.
A multi-stakeholder challenge (to be) embraced by all
Regulations at all levels will shift supply and demand towards cleaner transportation. The industry has already committed to spending over $200B globally on EVs between now and 2024, according to AlixPartners — most players would have otherwise stayed in the comfort zone of internal combustion engines. An increasingly appealing range of EVs and the memories of clear skies should entice more buyers to choose clean vehicles, or to forego the automobile acquisition altogether. Lastly, more companies are progressively shifting their fleets towards EVs, either for the sake of appearing as good corporate citizens or due to necessity, e.g. for restricted urban deliveries.
Personally, I am confident Europe as a whole will take the necessary steps to turn this crisis into a turning point for urban mobility. If managed correctly, it can become an integral part of the solution to the global warming problem, even more so than anticipated pre-Covid.