Bowing, perhaps to inevitability, the group of scientists responsible for assessing ways to cut the pollution that causes global heating, working group three of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, announced in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, that for the first time it will hold one of its major meetings ‘virtually’, avoiding the need for polluting travel. Over 270 experts from 65 countries would instead gather online. At a stroke they had been compelled to find a way that would set an example by cutting their own emissions. In doing so they revealed that this had, in fact, been an option all along as the technology to do so already existed.

One of the first things people in cities noticed as the coronavirus lockdowns started to be implemented and travel quickly reduced was the change in pollution levels. The sky was clear and contrail-free, and the air was cleaner. In some Indian cities, where air pollution is among the world’s worst and a major cause of death and disease, “people are reporting seeing the Himalayas for the first time from where they live,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

India’s hastily imposed shutdowns have been devastating, leaving hundreds of thousands of migrant workers without homes or jobs. But in Delhi, where air is normally choking, levels of both PM2.5 (small particulates) and the harmful gas nitrogen dioxide fell more than 70 percent. In China, the drops in pollution resulting from coronavirus shutdowns likely saved between 53,000 and 77,000 lives—many times more than the direct toll of the virus—according to calculations done by Marshall Burke, an Earth system scientist at Stanford University. Air pollution accounts for more than 1.2 million annual deaths in China.

Mass transit systems are less crowded – even with reduced timetables – and most roads are eerily empty as the majority of people who do not need to travel for work stay at home. Greece’s Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis reported that the use of public transport had plunged by 90% since March 16, with the number of daily ticket validations dropping from 900,000 to 100,000 for all means of transport: buses, trolleys, trains and the tram. Many transport companies have also put in extra measures, from disinfecting their rolling stock more often, protecting their drivers with the appropriate equipment, indicating where people should sit or not sit to keep the social distancing minimums while seated, and even removing fare payment or front door boarding altogether to protect drivers. These measures aren’t free and will have deep impacts on already strained budgets. But it is a reminder about the purpose and role of public transit as an essential public service underpinning the wider economy and society, rather than a money-making enterprise in its own right.

Such a fast and complete change in the way we move about in our daily lives is having a positive effect on our environment, but it could also help us to design a new future for transport. By experiencing what our environment can be like without transport pollution we may be reluctant to reverse the process fully. With so many cars off the roads, travel times have been reduced for deliveries and the movement of goods. In California, stay-at-home rules have reduced vehicle collisions by roughly half and migrating wildlife are better able to move about without the former high risks of death. Post crisis, it may be that very few may want to go back to the highway commute grind if they don’t have to.

The social distancing rules have revealed that many city paths are too narrow and some cities – like Bogota, Colombia, New York City and others – are using this opportunity to create emergency lanes by re-appropriating empty roads and making space so that walking and cycling are the preferred way to get around.

And by realising that many of the journeys we make are superfluous, we may become accustomed to working more from home and making fewer trips. In India, the Mumbai city administration intends to learn from this crisis and use data from lockdown transport patterns to imagine a possible future and “enhance city action plans.” And businesses around the world struggling to keep going with an uncertain future are undoubtedly thinking differently about online working. “Tools that can reduce business travel have long been available. The coronavirus is forcing us to use them, and the climate could benefit,” says Simon Webber, lead portfolio manager at Global Equities, Schroders. Car share companies have offered free vehicle use to key workers and healthcare staff, which may be the first time some people outside niche urban green groups have heard of – let alone used – a car share. Spokesperson Adrianna Rangeloff for Communauto YEG in Edmonton, explained: “The bus system is great — but it doesn’t always run at specific times. And our hospitals are not all super close.” Car sharing schemes might help plug some of these gaps without relying on individual car ownership.

There are, and will be, losers of course. The International Air Transport Association reports that the 2020 revenue loss for industries relying on long-distant travel could be between $63 billion and $113 billion – and that working patterns established during the COVID-19 outbreak might affect future business models. Public opinion has not been as supportive of airlines as the industry might have expected: when billionaire Sir Richard Branson indicated Virgin Atlantic intended to ask for a government bailout worth hundreds of millions of pounds, the public reaction was not favourable. Road haulage firms, although providing a vital distribution service for essentials, have also taken a huge hit as supply chains from China ground to a halt, and high streets and leisure outlets closed. In Brazil, in just one month from February to March 2020, road transport of manufactured goods such as household appliances declined by 38 percent. Although home deliveries mean that shopping online continues, it will be interesting to see if levels of consumption lower once the opportunity to influence people ‘in-store’, face to face, is reduced. Shops invest large amounts in the psychology of maximising in-store purchasing, where they can physically control your encounter with produce for sale, and ‘over-purchasing’ is common with an estimated one third of fresh food produce wasted.

Across the world, millions of small businesses and low-paid workers have been affected by the impact on transport, from drivers and engineers to packers, distributors and delivery services. Many of these people – even in wealthy countries – are on unstable pay and working conditions that leave them economically vulnerable, and unable to save for lean times. In countries such as Kenya, for example, over 70,000 matatus (privately owned minibuses) are seeing their earnings dropping by between 70-80 per cent as a direct result of COVID-19.

Wider relevance

Policymakers and strategic planners in corporations are likely to review long-term investment options in transport. For example, this might shift away from roads to ensuring everyone has access to sufficient broadband to work from home. We are already seeing a range of policy responses being suggested in this new environment. In Kenya, leaders are presenting the crisis as an opportunity to reduce dependence on other countries by becoming less dependent on oil imports. Renewable energy is already growing in the country and this hiatus could offer a chance to shift energy sources more radically. The Australian Road Research Board describes the COVID-19 shutdown as “a critical opportunity for Victoria to understand and deal with its transport issues before life eventually returns to normal,” according to chief executive, Michael Caltabiano. To avoid a scenario where Victorians will get back into their cars and spend hours on congested roads, Mr Caltabiano suggested implementing work from home on one or two days a week.

In the UK, traffic chiefs and experts are predicting a decline in traffic volume and train usage in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Automobile Association (AA) President, Edmund King, believes that demand for travel, whether on the road or by rail, will be reduced now that companies have seen it is possible to work from home, employees have become used to home working, and the technology is increasingly accessible. The UK chancellor, Rishi Sunak, currently plans to spend £27bn on road building and £100bn on the contentious high-speed north-south rail link, HS2. But if demand falls as predicted, the spending plan could be fundamentally changed. In a surprise comment from a pro-car organisation like the AA, Mr King has suggested the government might be better putting more money into broadband instead of bolstering infrastructure funds.

According to Professor Greg Marsden from the UK’s Leeds University’s Transport Studies Unit, the number of peak-hour commuter journeys was already declining before the crisis, as more people chose to work one or two days at home or started work later in the day. He told the BBC that instead of investing in expensive road expansion programmes, the government should ‘focus instead on rebuilding public transport and switching more vehicles to zero emissions.’ The UK government will be in a position, and perhaps be compelled to review its expensive, over-budget HS2 scheme – even though work for which has controversially been continuing throughout the crisis, capitalising on the absence of protesters to delay their efforts.

The same government quietly published an ambitious plan to revolutionise the country’s transport to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat the climate crisis. The report comes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and has appeared on the Department for Transport website without any fanfare.

Its key points are:

  • Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.
  • From motorcycles to HGVs, all road vehicles will be zero emission. Technological advances, including new modes of transport and mobility innovation, will change the way vehicles are used.
  • Our goods will be delivered through an integrated, efficient and sustainable delivery system.

In his introduction to the report, transport minister Grant Shapps, said: “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”  Mr Shapps calls for the changes to be implemented rapidly. “We can improve people’s health, create better places to live and travel in, and drive clean economic growth” he said. This is not just about electric vehicles – the government intends to  “support fewer car trips through a coherent, convenient and cost-effective public network, and explore how we might use cars differently in future.”

Context and background

Transport systems around the world have mostly grown in a fairly unplanned way, with the horse giving way to motorised transport, and the car, sometimes through hostile substitution, taking a large share of the mobility market away from buses and trains. In countries where mass transit infrastructure has not been invested in, the car has been the promoted norm. Without careful planning, mass transit systems often have not necessarily joined-up well, or functioned effectively outside cities. Inside cities, traffic jams remain the norm and people spend hours commuting in polluted, cramped environments. And in many countries, small diesel vehicles such as mini trucks and motorbikes make up the gaps between, emitting particularly dangerous small particulates. Road transport is estimated to be responsible for up to 30% of particulate emissions (PM) in European cities and up to 50% of PM emissions in OECD countries – mostly due to diesel traffic.

Mostly diesel commercial trucks ply our highways 24 hours a day and busy shipping lanes funnel vessels into increasingly huge container ports. It’s a dream for fossil fuel suppliers but is not a system designed for sustainability. On top of this multilayered web of transport sits flying, once the arena of the extremely wealthy and still a relative minority. In 2019, some 4.4 billion passengers took flights, but this represents a small proportion of the world’s population as many flyers travel regularly. In Britain for example, 70% of all flights are taken by just 15% of the population. Some estimates suggest that 80% of the world’s population has never taken a flight. Efforts to tackle carbon emissions from transport need to emerge fast. and plans for transformation to date have been mostly piecemeal rather than systemic.

Meanwhile, an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths are currently attributed to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, based on WHO data from 2012. And levels of air pollution have already been linked to the coronavirus. Researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that counties averaging just one microgram per cubic meter more PM2.5 in the air had a COVID-19 death rate that was 15 percent higher. This is because fine particles penetrate deep into the body, promoting hypertension, heart disease, breathing trouble, and diabetes, all of which increase complications in coronavirus patients. The particles also weaken the immune system and fuel inflammation in the lungs and respiratory tract, adding to the risk both of getting COVID-19 and of having severe symptoms. This data backs up findings from earlier outbreaks. A 2003 study of the outbreak of SARS, the closest relative of the new coronavirus, found that death rates in China’s most polluted areas were twice as high as in the least polluted ones.

Enabling factors

This shock to the transport system has come as a result of a global pandemic, despite consistent and increasingly urgent calls for change in the face of climate change. It took a more immediate public health threat to give governments the power to declare national emergencies and to restrict movement and other individual freedoms. Although this has been particularly fast and wide-reaching, other global crises have enabled rapid transition in the past. The oil shocks of the 1970s required that consumers and manufacturers rethink the size and use of cars – particularly in the US, where cars were huge “gas guzzlers.” A push for vehicle efficiency for economic reasons went alongside the drive for cleaner fuels once the dangers of lead were clear. However, this was within industries rather than a systemic change that affected how people used their vehicles.

Once the oil started to fall in price again, most countries reverted to the status quo, but the Netherlands used the opportunity to redesign road policies to focus on people rather than cars. They prioritised the cheapest, quickest and easiest way to get around their cities and towns, which meant the bicycle linked with local and regional public transit. Since then, the Dutch have become arguably the greenest and healthiest commuters on the planet while their economy continued to thrive.

It is important, then, to be aware that there is always a huge pull towards the status quo. It is so much easier to return to what we know. Once the coronavirus crisis has passed, and despite the possibility that another pandemic could strike at any time, many governments will be tempted to kick start struggling economies in the fastest way possible. This may not be sustainable or even maintainable, but it may happen anyway. There may be a drive to invest in failing industries or existing infrastructure – although the longer the crisis continues, the more likely it is that irreparable damage will be done and making structural changes will be easier to bear.

It is worth noting that even the highly conservative, populist Fox News, not known for its interest in sustainability, reported recently that US infrastructure needed major investment and suggested using a national bond mechanism to raise funds for wide-ranging projects. This followed the American Society of Civil Engineers, giving America’s infrastructure an unimpressive D-plus grade after taking into account tens of thousands of roads, bridges, tunnels – but not the nation’s “old and decaying electric grid or our airports and train systems”. Infrastructure creates a kind of behavioural path dependency, and at least a growing consensus about the need for new or upgraded transport infrastructure means a junction in the policy road and creates an opportunity for low-carbon transition.

The particular conditions surrounding COVID-19 also have one particular disadvantage for a rapid move toward increased mass transit use: the fear has been generated about getting too close to other people, particularly strangers. People may be frightened of public transport contamination for some time to come, which may make them reluctant to return to sharing travel space unless they have to. It is worth imagining what might happen if governments put as much effort into encouraging people out of their cars as they did to try and keep them at home.

Scope and evidence

  • In Delhi, where air is normally choking, levels of both PM2.5 (small particulates) and the harmful gas nitrogen dioxide fell more than 70 percent.
  • In China, the drops in pollution resulting from coronavirus shutdowns likely saved between 53,000 and 77,000 lives—many times more than the direct toll of the virus—according to calculations done by Marshall Burke, an Earth system scientist at Stanford University. Air pollution normally causes more than 1.2 million annual deaths in China.
  • Greece’s Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis reported that the use of public transportation had plunged by 90% since March 16, with daily ticket validations number dropping from 900,000 to 100,000 for all means of transport: buses, trolleys, trains and the tram.
  • In California, stay-at-home rules have reduced vehicle collisions by roughly half and migrating wildlife are better able to move about without dicing with death.
  • Some cities – like Bogota, Colombia, New York City and others – are using this opportunity to create emergency lanes by re-appropriating empty roads and making space so that walking and cycling are the preferred way to get around.
  • The International Air Transport Association reports that the 2020 revenue loss for industries relying on long-distant travel could be between $63 billion and $113 billion.
  • In Britain, 70% of all flights are taken by just 15% of the population. Some estimates suggest that 80% of the world’s population has never taken a flight.
  • In Brazil, in just one month from February to March 2020, road transport of manufactured goods such as household appliances declined by 38 percent.
  • In countries such as Kenya, for example, over 70,000 matatus (privately owned minibuses) are seeing their earnings dropping by between 70-80 per cent as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • The Australian Road Research Board describes the COVID-19 shutdown as “a critical opportunity for Victoria to understand and deal with its transport issues before life eventually returns to normal.”
  • The UK government quietly published an ambitious plan to revolutionise the country’s transport to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat the climate crisis.
  • Road transport is estimated to be responsible for up to 30% of particulate emissions (PM) in European cities and up to 50% of PM emissions in OECD countries – mostly due to diesel traffic.
  • An estimated 4.2 million premature deaths are currently attributed to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, based on WHO data from 2012.
    A 2003 study of the outbreak of SARS, the closest relative of the new coronavirus, found that death rates in China’s most polluted areas were twice as high as in the least polluted ones.

Lessons for rapid transition

  • Restrictions on the use of polluting forms of transport can provide massive gains in health and lower pollution in very short spaces of time.
  • Although the COVID-19 crisis is a human tragedy and sudden economic shock, it has also revealed that many journeys, often using expensive and polluting forms of transport, are not ultimately necessary.
  • There is an opportunity to re-think transport with a greater shift towards accessible, affordable, public and low carbon electric alternatives.

References