Are we witnessing a transportation revolution? Covid-19 pandemic heralds a new era for sustainable mobility

Oct 13 2020

a family relaxing after a bicycle ride

The global Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we travel. To avoid the spread of the virus, and reduce the chance of infection, cycling and walking quickly became the go-to way of travel during lockdown periods. As a result, more people are now aware of the benefits these modes of soft mobility (non-motorised and more sustainable forms of transport) bring on a personal and environmental level.

Creating and supporting more sustainable transport, especially in urban areas, is a major focus for the automotive industry. Especially, if we are to reach the European Union’s long-term goal of a carbon-neutral world by 2050. The pandemic has only accelerated the urgency to pioneer innovative mobility solutions that can help address current and future needs.

But now, with restrictions easing, the question begs: are we witnessing a transportation revolution?

Changing travel behaviours

The crisis has affected all forms of mobility, significantly reducing passenger transport demand and shifting people’s travel habits.

“What I see from the market is that people are cycling,” says Bert Vanneste, Head of Soft Mobility Solutions, Bridgestone EMIA. Indeed, global road transport activity was almost 50 percent below the 2019 average by the end of March 2020, with millions of commuters across Europe instead turning to cycling to avoid crowded public transport and a higher risk of infection.

The pandemic has also caused people to take their health more seriously, which means that more are recognising the individual benefits of soft mobility. Cycling, Vanneste notes, filled the void during lockdown, solving the problem of commuting and remaining fit and active when movement was restricted: “People really embraced being more physically active, because being in good physical condition was one of the ways to be stronger against the virus.”

As a result, there has been renewed pressure put on cities to make life easier and safer for more pedestrians and cyclists. In France, for example, public transportation for short distances is currently being discouraged, and Paris is now accelerating towards their 2024 “Plan Vélo” goal (for every street in the city to become cycle-friendly). A 2019 study conducted by Bridgestone1 also revealed that of the urban French people surveyed, 70 percent are interested in alternative mobility solutions to the private car. And for 72 percent of them, the long-term subscription is the future of mobility.

A new era for soft mobility

In the past decade, there have been significant developments in soft mobility solutions. Most notably, reflecting global megatrends such as urbanisation, climate change, dwindling natural resources, digitisation and CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared and Electric) mobility, the rise of electric bikes and more recently electric scooters.

“E-bikes are the future,” says Vanneste, noting that they’re taking over the market: “In Belgium, for example, they’re already 50 percent of sales in terms of volume,, and they will only grow.”

This growth can also be attributed to the rising popularity of shared mobility, which is becoming a desirable alternative for city-dwellers who prefer the flexibility of renting, are more eco-conscious and whose daily travel routine might include more than one mode of transportation.

This changing view of ownership and transport, coupled with the recent shift in travel behaviours spurred by the pandemic, has certainly benefited the e-bike market. Vanneste notes that although the sector was initially down when shops were closed, this quickly changed once they reopened. “There’s now not enough [e-bike] stock to fulfil the demand,” he says, adding: “You see that many [e-bike] leaders have doubled or tripled their revenue versus last year for the months of May/June.”

However, Vanneste recognises that there are still preconceptions and barriers to the uptake of e-bikes. “The problem is that e-bikes are expensive. People are afraid of the batteries – will they last long enough? – and that the technology is evolving too quickly.” explains Vanneste.

This is partly why, in 2019, Bridgestone launched Mobeflex, a flexible subscription scheme for e-bikes that’s available in major French cities. “We wanted to make e-mobility accessible and affordable,” says Vanneste, noting that the environmentally-friendly service provides customers with convenience and peace of mind thanks to all-inclusive warranty, maintenance cover and 24/7 breakdown assistance.

The benefits of e-bikes and e-scooters will also become more desirable to businesses and fleet operations. According to Vanneste, with many cities banning combustion engines, there’s a growing trend of e-cargo bikes and delivery services: “They start now with goods delivery services like DHL and Coolblue in the Netherlands and Belgium, but you'll also see more and more, like in Copenhagen where they have house movers who use e-bicycles to do this kind of service.”

The road ahead

Although many European cities have begun easing travel restrictions, what the ‘new normal’ for transport will look like post-pandemic remains uncertain. According to the Mobility Institute Berlin, without a vaccine against the coronavirus mobility demand will remain volatile. They suggest that, as a result, people will likely get used to a more flexible way of choosing different transport modes from day to day. Vanneste agrees: “People will probably travel smarter– they will not travel as they do today.”

To contribute to a more sustainable future, while meeting the increasingly evolving needs of customers in a dynamic and changing world, automotive companies, like us at Bridgestone, will need to continue to invest in soft mobility. However, Vanneste notes that while services such as Mobeflex are providing great alternatives, only structural and legislative changes can ensure that soft mobility becomes part of a new era of more sustainable travel.

“For example, if cities ban combustion-engine vehicles moving forwards and bet bigger on multimodality, then soft mobility will play a huge part in the future of urban transport.”

Footnote

1 Study carried out by Bridgestone with 1,609 people, including a boost of 300 regular bicycle users, members of the Toluna consumer panel, according to the quota method.