The COVID pandemic has caused a cataclysm in the mobility schemes that we knew. In the past year 2020, with the rise of the pandemic, new mobility paradigms have emerged, some of which are here to stay. The most obvious is teleworking but there are many others. A collateral effect of the pandemic has been to homogenize and globalize many public policies. The framework of nations becomes too small to act, because problems are increasingly global and, therefore, require global solutions. This is why we need a global governance.

Returning to mobility, the broadly observed trends in the European area are not different from those of other continents, and can be summarized as follows. In the first place, it should be noted that motorized mobility in general has suffered a very strong fall, both due to the rise of teleworking and the successive lockdowns that have dramatically reduced both recurrent commuter and management, leisure and tourism trips.

In turn, the use of public transport has fallen by 50% but it is estimated that it can recover up to 90%, once the pandemic is over, which will only be overcome on the global scale, never locally, in early 2024. The irresponsible alarmist messages launched by some public authorities, saying that public transport was not a safe place against infection, have not just caused a lot of damage but also have subsequently proved to be unfounded. The World Health Organization reported that not any case of infection in collective transport systems has been found. Another of the great lessons of the pandemic.

The bicycle boom

There has also been a boom in the use of bicycles. In Spain, the modal share may have reached 2% throughout 2020 and perhaps 3% in 2021. It may seem low, but it means multiplying by 20 the figures of a decade ago. Even so, we are still far from the most cyclist European countries. For example, in Copenhagen the modal share of bicycles is 50% on urban routes and 30% on interurban ones. Bogotá, the Colombian capital, with its 8.5 million inhabitants, has reached the extraordinary figure of 1 million cyclists a day. It is evident that during the COVID episode the bicycle has become a safe transport mode.

Regarding aviation, it has fallen dramatically by 90%. It is estimated that it will recover in the coming years but it will not be able to reach the values of the past. This will be due to the decline in international tourism, the rise of teleworking and the need to comply with international agreements to reduce emissions. Let us remember that the plane is the transport system that emits the most CO2 per passenger and km travelled. France is going to ban internal flights by law.

On its side, the use of private cars will suffer a downward trend throughout the current decade. There are several reasons behind this assertion. The rise of telework, which impacts more on private than public mobility, since the great lever in car use is work-related travel; the need to reduce emissions; and the slow but unstoppable replacing of internal combustion motor cars by electric ones, a process that seems uncertain and difficult but irreversible.

Electric cars are more expensive than traditional ones and have some problems, the most obvious of them is the difficulty in recharging the batteries. Furthermore, despite the enormous comparative efficiency of an electric car – it spends a fifth of a combustion engine one – and the suggestive possibility of using 100% renewable electric energy, as the railroad does throughout Spain, their traction elements need special elements that are very scarce, some of the most famous are cobalt and neodymium. My hypothesis is that we will only be able to replace 10% of thermal cars with electric ones.

Uncertainties in the mobility scenario

The COVID pandemic is going to be followed by the energy shortage pandemic. In the last seven years, little investment has been made in new oil fields because the fracking boom in the USA prevented them from a competitive price for new explorations. Once the USA fracking collapsed, leaving a terrible debt of 300,000 million USD – a serious problem for President Biden to deal with this poisoned inheritance, we have been left without fracking and without new explorations. We are living on rents from the oil of Gulf countries, the only one that is easy to be extracted because it is superficial. The oil price may shortly exceed the barrier of 200 USD / barrel and that will lead to car-based mobility in a difficult situation.

The end of the internal combustion engine car

In addition, we are witnessing the emergence of the electric vehicle, which we already knew in train and bicycle format, but in car format has been a novelty. Today the price of an electric car is twice that of a combustion one, and recharging batteries poses problems. For example, in Barcelona, the main electricity consumer in the city is the metro system, TMB. Just 2,000 cars charging simultaneously consume as much power as the subway… As long as they all are charged simultaneously, of course! 2,000 cars is easy to manage, but if we deal with 200,000, things get complicated.

In the case of Europe, in addition, cars with a combustion engine will not be sold before 2040. In the United Kingdom it will be earlier, in 2030, according to its prime minister. It is clear that the pressure to reduce emissions is increasing due to the fight against climate change that threatens to destroy southern Europe.

Therefore, it is reasonable to think that we are heading to a new scenario in which in twenty years the car for individual use will be a kind of luxury item, probably reserved for public systems, collective taxis, carsharing, carpooling, etc. In practice, especially in cities, private mobility will cease to exist. Trains, buses, cars, all vehicles except bicycles, will respond to public service planning logics.

The role of the autonomous car in the future of mobility

And that’s going to happen in a context where the emergence of the autonomous car seems relatively imminent. It is a new mobility product that makes steps forward year by year. Possibly, the cars of the future will be autonomous, electric and public, as an extension of public transport but with a capacity between 3 and 15 passengers. It should be remembered that a small autonomous bus like those that are running in Europe has a surface similar to that of a car, about 10 m². The difference lies in its interior distribution. Inside an autonomous vehicle, well distributed, 15 people may be fitted, many more than the 4 of a car.

All these hypotheses point to the urgency for European cities to strengthen their rail, suburban, subway and tram systems. It will be necessary to think about covering with rail transport half of the trips of the urban trips, a goal that today not any European city still succeeds. That means, in addition to zero emissions, the need to multiply by between 2 and 4 the supply in the current rail networks. But there are still many cities over 100,000 inhabitants without urban rail service. To face the future with guarantees, it is needed to get down to work as soon as possible.

Pau Noy, EPF member PTP, Barcelona