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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Covid-19, urban mobility and social equity

By j.davila, on 4 May 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

The hugely destructive health, social and economic effects of the novel Covid-19 respiratory virus have been amply illustrated in the world press over the past few weeks. This pandemic is, without a doubt, the toughest challenge faced by humanity in generations. As infected individuals unwittingly continued to travel in a world more interconnected than ever before, the virus rapidly spread from China to parts of Asia, Europe, North and South America and is gradually making its way to the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. The measures taken to contain it have placed a huge fiscal and monetary burden on their governments – and on future generations. In many cases, it has involved using variations on ‘lockdown’ measures to temporarily reduce or stop all forms of face-to-face interactions other than with immediate household members, thus effectively bringing entire national and city economies to a screeching halt. In cities for which there is reliable data, this has resulted in over 90% reduced mobility compared to usual patterns, as reported by Google and as can be seen in the Citymapper image.

Source: Citymapper Mobility Index, 1/5/20

What has this pandemic got to do with urban mobility and social equity? The key lies in all of these concepts: urban, mobility, and social equity. Scientists are still trying to model the behaviour of Covid-19. The virus spreads rapidly not only through direct contact or close proximity to an infected person, but it also survives for hours or even days on different surfaces. More worryingly, it seems to persist in the form of micro-particles suspended in the air many minutes after an infected person has sneezed, coughed or even spoken. All of this has extremely worrying consequences for cities. As urban economists like my DPU colleague Alexandra Panman have written, the quality that makes cities so unique as one of humankind’s best inventions is their ability to facilitate the exchange of goods, services and ideas often through personal contact with others. Over the past 10,000 years or so, cities have been at the core of all forms of cultural and economic advances. The stringent lockdown and ‘social distancing’ measures imposed by governments the world over, desperate to reduce the speed at which the virus spreads while a long-term solution (such as a vaccine) is found, conspire against this very quality of cities. At present no amount of communications technology, however sophisticated, offers a substitute for face-to-face interactions, a feature so central to human society for thousands of generations.

The pandemic has also struck at the core of the issue of mobility, and potentially threatens some of the policy gains made in the past few decades. Mindful of the heavy carbon and health cost of car-centric urban plans implemented in the richer nations in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequently copied elsewhere, in recent years progressive policy prescriptions have sought to avoid the need to travel, shift essential transport towards non-motorised or efficient public transport modes, and improve the fuel-efficiency and lower the emissions of all forms of transport (the ‘avoid-shift-improve’ model). Urban and transport planners have sought to align more closely their plans to make cities more compact with diverse activities closer to each other so the need to travel is reduced. If well thought out, these policies can potentially contribute towards more equitable cities, as poorer citizens who tend to travel longer distances and spend a higher share of their income on transport can instead devote more time to their personal development and the wellbeing of their families. In the rare case of an epidemic such as the present one, or some threat to street life such as a terrorist attack on public transport systems, unless stringent measures are taken to make public transport safe for all, people will take matters into their own hands by, for example, shifting to private cars or motorbikes if they can afford them, or else spend even longer time walking to work. This would reverse any social and economic gains sought by a succession of progressive urban policies. It is also likely to leave a very large hole in municipal finances as much-needed revenues from public transport fares are drastically reduced.

The pandemic is exacerbating socio-economic inequalities around the world. In both middle and high-income countries, only some white-collar workers are able to continue working from home while those employed in factories, retail, hospitality, personal services and as street traders who must travel to work risk being infected or deprived of an income during a lockdown. As research from the UK shows, those with lowest household incomes are less able to work from home, a result echoed in preliminary results from DPU research on Colombian cities. Evidence from the UK and the US points to ethnic minorities being much more likely to die from the disease.

As those able to work from home using the internet will also tend to earn higher incomes than those in manual occupations, such measures will further exacerbate already wide income inequalities, unless national governments put in place drastic measures to prevent so, at a significant cost to national budgets. Once the data becomes available, analysis of lockdowns and their impact on city populations and economies is likely to add to the evidence that the ability to travel safely and efficiently is central to generate wealth, reduce income inequalities and, therefore, improve social equity.

The unprecedented situation in which most of humanity finds itself offers policy makers valuable lessons. Before Covid-19, and largely due to the effects of the SARS epidemic in 2003, only a handful of countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, China and Hong Kong had adopted preventive epidemic plans. It is very likely that many countries will add the threat of new epidemics into the planning of new urban transport infrastructure.

Scholars and policy makers have learned much from applying social, environmental and spatial lenses to the study of transport. These are extremely valuable advances that the current global emergency should remind us of. The challenge remains to make cities and urban transport safe, more equitable and less environmentally damaging for present and future generations, so that it continues to provide a lifeline to city economies, to communities and to individuals’ own advancement.

3 Responses to “Covid-19, urban mobility and social equity”

  • 1
    Anjan Mitr wrote on 5 May 2020:

    We need to think at radical solutions and understanding towards mobility more holistically. The article has articulated the concerned issues now it’s time for the urban designers, planners and development practitioners to explore a decentralised local market opportunities , some thing that existed in the cities of pre industrial era. Work and home can co- exist and a necessary condition for a balanced life. With the advancement in communication technology we may be able to find a middle path.

  • 2
    j.davila wrote on 17 May 2020:

    Dear Anjan. Thank you for your comments. I concur that we ought to be working for cities where a broader range of productive, consumer, leisure and social activities take place within a small radius of people’s homes. Some people are referring to this as the ’15-minute city’. That is a reality in many European cities for people in some service sectors who can work online and have sufficient income to afford the housing costs in self-contained neighbourhoods well served by all of these as well as by public transport. The big challenge in the global south lies in offering similar solutions to specialised manual workers working in factories, workers in the service sector who have to be physically present in their work such as messengers or delivery people, and the self-employed in the informal sector. A price to pay for highly concentrated and diverse neighbourhoods is the high price of land/housing. This means that workers earning low incomes cannot avoid travelling on public transport or other forms of motorised transport to sell their labour force or the products of their labour. Food sellers living in some informal settlements, for example in Nairobi, are able to live and work locally, but they tend to be the minority.

  • 3
    RPLA wrote on 25 January 2023:

    It’s not only the economy that hasn’t recovered 100% but every individual and family is trying to live their life after the pandemic but there are still feelings of trauma so that the same thing doesn’t happen to their own families.

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