empty train station


Urban mobility: The 'new normal' in big cities

Is the coronavirus reversing the progress of the urban mobility transition? umlaut experts have been analysing mobility patterns in major cities.

Aachen, 2020/5/20 – Since 22 March, the red currents on the 'mobility map' have shrunk to mere trickles – since the introduction of social distancing, otherwise crowded places have become much quieter. At measurement points such as stations, supermarkets, petrol stations and pharmacies, there are far fewer people out and about. 'This can be explained by the fact that people are rethinking their behaviour and, for example, avoiding non-essential shopping trips,' says umlaut expert Teresa Brell.

Together with her colleagues Kristin Klinge, Daniel Bargende and Simon Müller, she has been analysing on mobility in Hamburg, Munich, Cologne and Berlin – and has discovered a few surprises.

Just a week after the introduction of social distancing, usage figures at a number of these measurement points went up again slightly. 'It seems that after the initial shock there was a certain level of normalisation,' says Brell.

The 'new normal' – a question of trust for mobility providers

In this case, however, 'normal' meant a 'new normal' with a potentially drastic impact on mobility providers. Although the level of activity of the recorded users has risen, the distances they are covering overall has only changed minimally. The radius of their movements, on the other hand, has reduced significantly. The number of journeys made which are over 15 kilometres is considerably lower than it was before the start of the crisis – a problem for providers of long distance travel, such as coach or rail operators. 'In this situation, providers are faced with having to rebuild people's trust in these forms of transport – for example, through appropriate hygiene concepts and clear communications. By demonstrating, for example, that it is possible to travel by train and still maintain social distancing,' says Brell

This also applies to the providers of shared mobility solutions for short trips such as journeys to and from the station – for example, providers of electric scooters. 'We are expecting customers to be more cautious initially.' It seems that traditional transport providers have a slight advantage in this crisis – in the first few weeks after social distancing was introduced, activity at petrol stations increased at a faster rate than at other locations. Will the advent of a new age of mobility be brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic? The experts are sceptical on this point. 'We reckon that there will need to be a rethink in terms of strategic direction, in particular on the part of start-ups and smaller providers in the market. With this in mind, we are expecting the consolidation of some providers,' says Brell. She believes this may especially have an impact on the structures in the market and lead to some restructuring.

What hasn't changed is the underlying trend: 'The fundamental change in our behaviour with regard to transport makes new mobility concepts possible and necessary,' says Brell. 'We are looking at a global trend – more and more people are living in urban environments. Sustainable mobility in inner cities and networking with the surrounding areas will continue to become increasingly important.'

Here, as before, there is an opportunity for a mix of public and individual local transport, sharing options and mobility on demand, according to Brell. 'Now in particular, we must ensure that we don’t disregard people's needs – we should enable forms of mobility that are flexible and also safe.'