The bumpy roads of COVID-19: EIT Urban Mobility navigating cities through the pandemic

By Daniel Serra, Director of Innovation Hub South at EIT Urban Mobility, Marta Álvarez, Engagement and Communications Manager at Innovation Hub South of EIT Urban Mobility and Mateusz Kaluza, Intern at the Innovation Hub South of EIT Urban Mobility

It is almost one year since COVID-19, hither to unknown strain of coronavirus, took the first pages of newspapers and majority of airtime all over the globe. For each one of us, it is a long time filled with questions and reflections triggered by staggering amounts of data. Mainstream is continuously feeding us with daily updates and forecasts. Although at the beginning the reflections concerned health and safety issues, slowly it became clear that implications of the new reality would continue to affect all our daily habits.

Not only the dreamed holidays had to be suspended, but even such basic routines like daily commuting hit severe limitations. This highly unexpected experience made us come back to the roots, realising the real value of freedom, especially if it comes to daily commuting or outdoor leisure activities. For over 70% of European population living in densely inhabited urban areas, it started to become a real struggle with no end-date. For governments, there is still no clear answer where the balance between security measures and uninterrupted accessibility to services is. We are exposed to the continuous negative impact of climate change, which intensively reminds us about the urgent need to intensify actions towards sustainable development. Passenger and freight transport – having a significant share in the urban air, water, and soil pollution – must be prioritised and tackled multidimensionally.

At EIT Urban Mobility, we are aware of these challenges and we work hand-in-hand with citizens to figure out innovative solutions to mitigate emerging problems and address already existing mobility challenges. As a citizen-centred organisation, the role of EIT Urban Mobility, an initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), is to emphasize users’ needs in the ongoing mobility transformation through innovation and dialogue with all mobility stakeholders. Thereby enabling new, strong alliances and share knowledge and good practices. The aim is to accelerate solutions and the transition towards a user-centric, integrated and truly multimodal mobility, taking advantage of this pan-European knowledge and innovation community of over 150 leading companies, cities, universities, and research centres.

In the next paragraphs, by sketching the current pandemic landscape and studying urban road grids, bicycle
paths and underground corridors, we will try to answer what the future of sustainable mobility is, what is
waiting around the corner and finally, why EIT Urban Mobility is taking over to lead the transition towards a
sustainable and safe urban mobility. Let´s take a virtual walk and have a closer look.

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 and disruptive from the
very beginning. The world stopped, and all means of transport that helped people getting from A to B followed the freezing wave. Since then, a shortcut to bring the pre-pandemic reality back is top priority for service providers, including cities, for which the transport sector directly ensures the day-to-day running of the city itself. Citizens are also in the loop. Not because of the utopian life we were living, running late on Monday mornings to jump into a crowded bus, but because of the freedom and convenience of cruising around that has been suddenly lost.

Fortunately, it seems that the post-pandemic city will never be the same, especially now, when telecommuting is here to stay. In fact, by temporarily sacrificing our mobility, we received a high quality demo of benefits resulting from the lack or significantly reduced traffic. Exceptional low concentration of greenhouse gases in the air, reduction of noise or accidents are among the examples that societies were fighting against for the past years, however, without any spectacular break-throughs. COVID-19 won the first battle just in one year, offering the possibility to break with the business-as-usual without looking back.

On the other hand, there are emerging trends that we need to monitor closely. For instance, an increase of ecommerce that is quashing our local commerce. Cities have to look for, as many times in the past, sustainable solutions to improve their citizens’ over all quality of life. Nowadays, mobility is involved in every step of our daily routines and can become a backbone for cities to prove their resilience and emerge stronger.

Travel in time. Press the red button to re-start the system
To do so, the momentum must be used in the best possible way, namely being based on the fast-lane
implementation of innovative, smart solutions. Aware of this, EIT Urban Mobility intends to accelerate and
ensure the development and deployment of integrated, eco-efficient and safe mobility solutions. It is the first
European initiative bringing together the Knowledge Triangle (business, education, and research) along with
cities, with the aim of pushing the red button and reorganising the mobility landscape of cities. By merging the three key-drivers of knowledge-based society with citizens’ needs, the principal goal is to introduce innovative solutions in our cities to allow people and goods to move affordable, fast, comfortably, safely, and cleanly.

This new reality, instead of uploading just a patched update, must turn the clock around and bring us back to the 19th century. It was before the first oil boom, when streets belonged to the citizens and as safe, green tunnels stretched between the buildings, offered colourful variety. Back then, each neighbourhood was different reflecting its people and lifestyle. Nowadays, in the hyperconnected space with massive human flow, the task of balancing multiple, short-term needs becomes overwhelming and requires deep analysis supported by highly trained algorithms, big data, and artificial intelligence. All together, they will drive our cities to respond better to future crisis.

At EIT Urban Mobility, the journey starts at the City Club, with close cooperation and through consultation with cities, identifies cities’ challenges and shares the good practices. With pain points determined, the stage is passed to Innovation, which unlocks the full potential of ideas and research to transform them into projects with high impact solutions. Next door, there is Business Creation, which supports the implementation phase by equipping consortia with promising start-ups. Both units, Innovation and Business Creation, work under the umbrella of a public-private partnership model ensuring the highest quality and tangible impact of investments.

Factory aims to scale-up the solutions globally by identifying cities and industry’s needs and applying them in each city as if it was a living and unique tissue. The last seat is taken by Academy, which aims to close the knowledge gap through education activities to train the mobility future leaders and entrepreneurs. It seems to be an easy process once the responsibilities are well-distributed across the areas. However, dealing with regulation issues, making sure of vision alignment among stakeholders, and meeting tight deadlines, all increases the process complexity.

On-site pilots & City Labs to dispel doubts
To ensure the solutions are achieving the desired impact, one of the key activities is to carefully manage their
implementation. Tired of the climate change implications and being hit both by the virus and the first signs of an economic slowdown, cities and citizens need working solutions like never before. Here is the cornerstone of EIT Urban Mobility’s activities which – by connecting cities with key agents of urban mobility – aim to deploy solutions by testing them previously in a real-life environment. That means the launch of city pilots and living labs networks to get the most of ideas by improving them based on continuous evaluation. The great example is the dynamic response of Barcelona to the emerging problem of sudden decrease of public transport demand due to safety reasons.

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

To mitigate arising logistic problems for citizens and concerns of city halls, smooth cooperation between partners across Europe enabled the first pilot tests of a permanent disinfectant for public open spaces (CD-Clean – COVID 19 new disinfection formulation) and an app-based software to estimate public transport occupancy (CO-APS – Crowdsourced Obtention and Analytics of Data About the Crowding of Public Spaces for the Benefit of Public Transport and Mobility in Cities) in a record time. Clean, virus-resistant surfaces and clear information about the occupation of vehicles managed to improve the safety and – above all – passengers’ mental comfort, beginning to rebuild trust to the shared means of transport. Moreover, the concept of tactical urbanism, hand-in-hand with tailored products or services, gained the attention and accelerated.

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

Reorganising public space by low-cost investments with high potential impact is the main reason why these small changes can succeed even during crisis. Furnish project is the demonstration of a flexible approach to Barcelona’s streets, by designing mobile urban elements which are temporally integrated to the public space in a functional way (FURNISH – Fast Urban Responses for New Inclusive Spaces and Habitat).

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

Although they were designed to be transient answers to current restrictions, we know that many are likely to stay with us for longer. That is because new bike lanes, more pedestrian zones with better arranged leisure space or car-free streets were needed long before 2020. Thanks to the inclusive design process where local citizens participated in reorganising their own neighbourhoods, it finally became a reality. Even if it sounds contradictory to what we feel, COVID-19 and our home-based life limited to the neighbourhood helped us recognise the value of public space

Now, the long-term vision with short-term milestones
For EIT Urban Mobility, there is nothing more obvious than the importance of periodic evaluation 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 further 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) and last-mile services to create a flexible, multimodal offer to the passenger. Such platform needs to be further optimised to leave the static model behind, providing on-demand, fast adaptable features. The whole process requires legal support with clear regulations being updated on a regular basis.
For this particular example, and for the majority of urban challenges in general, the technology is already in place. Meanwhile, the pandemic revealed the needs. 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.

In the EU, cities are not alone
There are tools and mechanisms to facilitate the transition. In fact, 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) already in place, open enormous possibilities for those who can envisage and change our urban landscape for a less polluted and human-centric one, making cities green and more liveable. In fact, one of the goals of Horizon Europe programme is to achieve climate-neutral, smart cities which will improve the quality of life of cities’ inhabitants. And, indeed, the 15-minute city plan of the city of 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.

These kinds of sustainable initiatives can be backed by significant funds. The Recovery and Resilience Plans
offer €672.5 billion for the 27 Member States of the EU, including €312.5 billion of grants to split. The urban
mobility field has potential to take a significant piece of the cake as various analysis succeed to prove that
mobility-related investments will not only support environmental goals, but boost economy by strengthening supply chains, reorganising infrastructure, and unlocking synergies resulting from local cooperation.

In a nutshell, this reflection is shedding more light on the need of more liveable urban spaces. With COVID-19 breaking in a disruptive way with the past, and funds allocated to cities through tailored programmes, there is a unique opportunity to totally reshape the space we live in and revert the way we commute. To dust off the lost simplicity and push it into the future reinforced with technology. It only depends on our will to join forces and race together the relay against an irreversible climate crisis. This is a multigenerational joint effort that each citizen can contribute to.

Have a look at our article in the ‘Thinking Cities’ magazine here, with more interesting mobility articles. The ‘Thinking Cities’ magazine is a magazine of the Polis Network and aims to help shape the debate on sustainable transport in Europe and internationally.