Personal mobility in Europe in 2021 and beyond

The big legislative push of the von der Leyen Commission on reducing carbon emissions, the Fit for 55 package, is approaching fast. Together with the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy published at the end of last year, they set the tone for what will be an ambitious and, above all, very busy policy agenda for anyone interested in Europe’s transport policy in the next 2-3 years.

Transport is one of the key sectors being targeted by emissions reduction measures, and not without reason. Transport greenhouse gas emissions represent around 25% of Europe’s GHG emissions, according to the Commission’s own figures. Achieving the 90% cut in emissions by 2050 called for in the European Green Deal will therefore require significant efforts in the transport sector.

Member States, in their recent conclusions on the Sustainable and Smart Mobility strategy, identify rail transport as key to the future European transport network that is climate-neutral, environmentally friendly as well as resilient and interconnected, stating that shifting “carbon-intensive modes to rail is likely the most effective way to decarbonise transport in large parts of the Union’s territory”.

The EU has set itself ambitious goals, requiring fundamental shifts in infrastructure, technology and use of transport.

So how do we travel from point A to point B safely and sustainably?

It’s worth reflecting on how much has changed for the transport sector over the last year, and what this means for the future of transport policy.

At the same time that the sector will need to find entirely new ways to operate, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our thinking on mobility, particularly personal mobility. The pandemic has had a significant impact both on personal mobility and road freight mobility, though each was affected very differently. Freight movements were disrupted early on, as borders were closed and Member States turtled up. However, the Commission’s Green Lane guidelines for freight transport were successfully implemented, prioritising the movement of goods over the movement of people and keeping economic activity going.

For many of us used to working in an office, the commute this past year has been about negotiating an obstacle course of surprisingly spiky kids toys on the way to whatever corner of home has been designated ‘the office’. Armed with the morning coffee and whatever was available in the kitchen, the morning begins earlier and ends later. Logging into your virtual office space, framed by screen, camera lens and headphones, office workers have become more available, with both positive and negative consequences.

The need, and reasons for travelling from one point to another have changed. With vaccine programmes finally getting traction, and Member States scaling back travel restrictions, we are beginning to see a recovery. The question remains how this will be reflected in where and how we choose to travel.

At the start of the pandemic, public authorities and transport operators were quick to reassure the travelling public that they were taking every imaginable precaution to ensure safe mobility as restrictions took hold – a difficult narrative at a time when many were reluctant to spend any length of time in the confined space of a public transport vehicle with a sizeable number of strangers.

Those who needed to travel and could afford to, switched to individual mobility options like cars, bikes, e-scooters, eschewing public transport. There is ample evidence that the numbers of people using public transport declined significantly, whilst private car use has seen a surge in many European cities. This can partly be ascribed to mitigation measures introduced by many public transport authorities, such as reducing allowed capacity of a given vehicle to half or even less, as well as the promotion of active mobility modes, cycling and walking in particular. According to recent figures from the European Cycling Federation, more than 2,300km of new bike lanes have been put in place across the EU since the start of the pandemic, with plans for more in many urban centres.

There is a strand of public discourse, centred around the idea of building back better, that views the past year as a chance to reset the parameters of personal mobility and how the interplay between public and private modes of transport will shift.

Those businesses wanting to benefit from this recent shift in urban mobility will need to work with all levels of government and local authorities in order to ensure that the recent changes in personal mobility are permanent, rather than just a brief glimpse of what could have been: more liveable cities.

Public transport will continue to play an important role in the overall transport infrastructure of urban and also rural areas, particularly if the 90% emissions reduction by 2050 is to be achieved. Concepts such as Mobility as a Service, multimodal ticketing, increased digitalisation and better interconnectivity between different transport options are going to become increasingly important in the continued evolution of personal mobility.

Personal mobility is not just about travel to and from work, of course. The reasons and times when we need or want to travel are changing. With more of us indicating that we would like to continue working from home for at least part of the week where possible, established peak traffic times may become far more fluid. Public transport companies will have to review their operations and their timetables to take into account that more fluid demand. Private mobility businesses in turn will need to better integrate their services with mass transit networks.

All of this will require massive investment in upgrading and diversifying transport infrastructure within European cities as well as outside cities. The Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy and the Fit for 55 package both aim to create the right conditions for the future of personal mobility to be both sustainable and safe. Having been active in this area for a number of years, the momentum we currently see in both public and corporate discourse around the future of mobility is exhilarating.