The world will be coming to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic — and its consequences — for years to come. One strange side effect has been the eerie emptiness of normally bustling cities, which now resemble the opening shots of an end-of-the-world Hollywood film.
On one hand, this makes our local neighbourhoods feel lonely and alien. But at the same time, the lack of traffic pollution has left us with clean air — and breathing air minus the fumes is actually quite nice (who knew?). Not hearing the roar of engines outside your window is a peaceful change, too.
If your city feels less polluted than ever at the moment, that’s probably because it is. From London, to Paris, to Madrid, data shows that nitrogen oxide in the air has decreased to safe levels for the first time in decades. The effects of widespread travel restrictions have been so dramatic that machines measuring air toxicity are reporting themselves as broken.
And while the associated health risks are well-documented, it’s worth emphasising that — like COVID-19 — urban pollution is a serious public health crisis. The World Health Organization reports that air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths a year.
The problem has recently been put back in the spotlight, with growing evidence that pollution has magnified the impact of COVID-19. 80% of deaths related to coronavirus occurred in just 8% of 66 European regions studied — all of which had the most polluted air.
This doesn’t have to be the trade-off. We should be able to enjoy what makes cities great without damaging our health by living in them. So once the lockdowns are lifted, how can we extend this break from traffic pollution beyond a brief breath of fresh air?
In many cities, the fast-growing technological innovation of shared electric mobility is already part of the solution. But in the future, micro-mobility companies can help transform cities into healthier, quieter, more accessible places to live — long term, and on a global scale. Here’s how.
It goes without saying that the more gasoline-powered journeys are replaced with electric-powered ones, the better. But let’s underline the difference between traveling by car and taking a lightweight electric moped.
Gasoline-powered cars are a major contributor to air pollution in the city: a typical 5-seater car emits 22g of nitrogen oxide (NOX) and 0.3g of Particulate Matter (PM) into the city per 100km on the road.
An electric moped emits zero NOx and zero PM per 100km into the city air.
And clean air isn’t the only positive of using electric vehicles — they also make a lot less noise, which can be as bad for our health as air pollution. Plus, they take up much less space than a car.
Micro-mobility companies with a sustainability-first mindset can guide cities towards embracing shared networks of light electric vehicles. At scale, this would make a huge impact on air pollution with an eco-friendly — and fun — way for millions of people to get around.
Micro-mobility first gained worldwide attention as a disruptive technology that left cities and public transport companies scrambling to catch up. But to permanently decrease urban traffic and pollution, micro-mobility companies and cities need to work hand-in-hand and create long term solutions together.
On one hand, micro-mobility companies can provide cities with expert advice, data, and technical know-how on adopting shared electric mobility. On the other, city councils and public transport companies have local legitimacy that can only be earned over many years, so they’re already in the perfect position to facilitate new ways to travel — and to encourage citizens to use them.
A living example of this public-private cooperation is Pick-e-Bike. Based in Basel, Switzerland, the company is operated by local public transport authority BLT, but combines the micro-mobility technology and know-how of ElectricFeel, and electric vehicle hardware startups. As a result, Pick-e-Bike has set up a fleet of over 300 e-bikes and 60 e-mopeds — complementing the existing public transport network.
Cities need flexible mobility systems that are low-cost to maintain and easy to adapt.
With a wide range of light-weight vehicles to choose from, micro-mobility networks can be tailored to fit the road geometry that a city already has. By taking up less road space than cars, light-weight electric vehicles reduce traffic — which also cuts pollution.
And when extraordinary events like the COVID-19 pandemic happen, micro-mobility companies have shown they can adapt their networks to help.
Within hours of lockdowns starting, many micro-mobility companies converted their transport networks to help essential workers get where they need to go.
From expanding their service area to cover more major hospital centers to offering free rides for healthcare workers, several of our partners — including Revel, Billy, Pick-e-Bike, and eCooltra — have shown how micro-mobility can help provide quick solutions to big urban problems.
From where we are now, a return to normal still seems a long way off. And just as we should stay positive by dreaming of shops re-opening, social life resuming, and being able to ride through the city freely, we should also think about the kind of ‘normal’ we want to return to.
As reports stack up on the link between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths, Milan is already planning to transform 35km of its roads into walking and cycling areas. Deputy Mayor Pierfrancesco Maran sums up the situation:
There will be a new normality, and we have to create good conditions for everyone to live in this new normality. Before, we were planning for 2030. Now the new phase, we are calling it 2020.
The rush to kick-start the economy — and our lives — shouldn’t have to mean pollution from cars jumping back to pre-crisis levels. City leaders are realising that a cleaner, greener future for cities is needed sooner rather than later. And shared electric mobility can play a massive part in accelerating the transformation.