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Public Transport and the Pandemic: Not Best Friends

03.14.22 | Blog | By:

A recent prospective study by the French Agency for Energy Transition (ADEME) “Transitions 2050”, no translation needed, insists, in the prospective scenarios toward net zero, on the role of public transportation in reducing passenger road transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The second half of the 20th century saw the transition from walking to driving. This created a boom of car sales (in France, from 300,000 per year in 1960 to 2 million in 1990), spurred by the middle-class financial growth in the post-World War II era, the desire for unconstrained mobility and the sprawling exurbia, way beyond downtown and historic suburbs, pushing urbanization always further out in rural areas.

And, in exurbia, you need your car to commute, to shop around, to visit friends and family. No wonder ecologists rail against this type of housing model and want citizens back inside inner cities, also called “15-minute cities”, described as “green”, open to “soft mobility” and offering “proximity shopping”. This position was recently advocated by the presidential candidate of the French Ecologist Party, but in total contradiction with the emerging trend of French Yuppies (Zuppies?), usual supporters, at least on social media and in elections, of the Ecologist Party, who are supposed to flee Paris for smaller cities or rural areas.

I sure can understand: from my point of view, metropolis and ecology are oxymorons. Concretely, data for 2018 in France show that 65% of passenger mobility (measured in passenger.km) is by car, 5% by bus, 10% by train, and it should not be that different in most major Western economies and in the rest of the world. The “car society”, and its corollary, the “car-solo” attitude, are clear attributes of our times, regardless of HOV lanes, car-sharing and Uber.

As not everyone can work at or close to home, and regardless of the development of home-working or of co-working hubs, pressure for more public transport can then only intensify, if transport policies go the green way. Public transport must be cleaner, faster, more reliable, more frequent, with more comfort and more safety and security, quite a challenge for heavy and historic infrastructures, even with significant technological progress in material and intelligence.

In the above-mentioned ADEME study, the trend scenario calls for a 35% increase in mobility demand between 2015 and 2050. Even in the scenario with the most dramatic change in lifestyle, called “Frugal Generation”, where nature is holy, sanctuary in newspeak, local, organic food, recycling and low-tech are the new norms, mobility only decreases by 26%, with a reduction of car trips by 55%, implying an increased recourse to public transport for mobility that cannot be local, walking or cycling. For some actors, doubling the public transport offer is clearly on the table.

But prospective studies have not yet taken into account a new factor: the pandemic. Just one figure tells it all: in 2020, passenger rail transport fell 42% v. 2019. Sudden and brutal home-locking came as a shock to a society where freedom of mobility has been the standard for decades, bringing chaos and confusion to railways, airlines and international tourism, to name a few of the impacted sectors. But, at a lower level, and possibly with long-lasting resilience, the pandemic has also changed the point of view of commuters on public transport. In 2019, 2% of people living in cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants in France claimed they did not use public transport on a regular basis; in 2021, this increased to 40%.

Even in the Greater Paris, where there are many reasons to travel via the ubiquitous, and reasonably efficient, network of public transportation, the disinterest has grown from 15 to 25%. Home-working and a reduced desire to move around come as first exit causes, but fear of contamination comes as a solid second, and epidemiology studies confirm public transport is a significant source of contamination, if not the first, as believed by polled commuters. Joined by senior citizens, they may remain public transport-adverse in the future.

And what about the future of international tourism? Will the mass model, and the tourists, ever come back? This reduced load factor has a huge negative impact on the balance sheets of transport operators and public authorities, for instance forcing the French Government to help the Greater Paris mobility system stakeholders with €2 billion in relief funding in 2020-2021. Likely consequence thereof? A future increase of the ticket price. This usually implies a reduction in demand, an endless downward spiral when the pressure for more public transport calls at the same time for more investment in size, in efficiency, in greener fuels, to encompass all the new mobility vectors (bikes, scooters, mopeds) in a seamless point-to-point voyage.

Individualism is the modus vivendi of the 21st century: in the age of enduring pandemic, quite a possibility, will the fear of contamination, the new end-of-the-month concern, prevail over the ecological concern to reduce the car-solo attitude, the end-of-the-world concern?

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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