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Report extract

Urban transport

Movement restrictions, lockdowns and border closures during the Covid-19 pandemic have transformed personal mobility in cities, heavily reducing energy demand. A range of crisis-induced factors could influence the energy intensity of urban mobility.

Despite some easing of restrictions during mid-2020, some trends emerging from the crisis in 2020 are:

  • lower travel demand (particularly for business) and reduced commuting (as a result of teleworking)
  • a shift away from public transport to private cars and active transport, and growth in e-commerce and delivery services
  • a slight improvement in new road vehicle technical efficiency, because electric vehicles’ share of new car sales has risen.

The longer-term outlook for urban transport energy intensity remains unclear but economic uncertainty and continuing low fuel prices could slow vehicle upgrades, resulting in lower technical efficiency. 

Crisis-induced factors that could affect passenger transport energy intensity

Type of effect Factor Potential effect on energy intensity improvement
Activity and structural Modal shifts in urban transport, from public transport to cars.
Modal shifts in urban transport, from public transport to active transport.
Technical efficiency Economic recession results in low consumer confidence, leading to lower vehicle replacement rates in some markets or uptake of cheaper, less energy-efficient vehicles.
Continuing low fuel prices encourage the purchase of less efficient vehicles and fuels
Government stimulus spending targets more efficient vehicles and modes of transport

The design of government stimulus spending could improve technical efficiency, for example by providing incentives for consumers to replace older, less efficient vehicles. It could also determine whether behaviours that improves energy intensity continue – for example, by providing urban infrastructure that encourages the public to use more energy-efficient active transport modes, such as cycling. Stimulus measures not tied to efficiency improvements could lead to strong rebounds in energy use, if or when passenger transport activity returns to pre-crisis levels.

Transport has already been the focus of a significant number of government stimulus spending announcements, designed to shift travellers to less energy-intensive modes of transport and improve the technical efficiency of vehicles. However, stimulus spending announcements have primarily focused on supporting electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, with less support directed to other efficient transport modes.

Activity and structural impacts

Stay-at-home restrictions, workplace and school closures, and other movement restrictions resulted in steep reductions in urban mobility in March and April. While restrictions have been eased in many countries, smartphone data show that visits to workplaces and retail and recreation1 as of the end of October remain below baseline levels in most countries. Travel to workplaces remains about 25% lower in Canada, Mexico and the United States, and 15% to 30% lower in most European countries. In contrast, travel to workplaces has remained largely unchanged in countries less affected by Covid-19, such as New Zealand.

Change in travel to workplaces in selected countries, March-Nov 2020

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Change in driven kilometres in selected countries, March-Oct 2020

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In some countries, impacts of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic on mobility were becoming visible in September and October. For example, smartphone data from Israel suggest that the three-week lockdown imposed on 18 September reduced the average driven kilometres per day by around half.

While transport activity is likely to be lower than normal across all modes in 2020, trip data from smartphones suggest that in most countries, the decline in public transport trips exceeds declines in private transport modes such as walking and driving.

Data from the United States illustrate the types of modal shifts occurring around the world. After lockdowns and movement restrictions were introduced in the United States, weekday transport demand for all modes plummeted below typical levels during March and April. By mid-May, trips by car and walking had recovered (and exceeded pre-pandemic levels) but public transport remained far below typical usage levels, as people remained fearful of the infection risk.

Index of changes in work week transport trip requests by mode compared with baseline in the Unites States, Feb-Oct 2020

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Among the urban mobility modes, public transport (bus, metro and rail) has been hit the hardest. In countries where the health crisis has been particularly severe, trips by public transport remain around 40% lower than before the pandemic.

In contrast, driving, walking and cycling have experienced a more substantial recovery in trips, with some of these modes exceeding pre-pandemic levels. 

Average working week transport trip requests by mode compared with baseline, Jan-Oct 2020

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Some countries have registered net increases in average trips by car for the year to date. In Germany, Japan and the United States, car trips have increased from the pre-pandemic period, while public transport trips remain lower than usual. Road congestion in Bangkok, Beijing and Shanghai has nearly returned to pre-crisis levels as movement restrictions ease.

The pandemic also appears to be boosting active transport modes. Automated bike counters show increases in many North American regions and European countries. In September, for example, bike counts in France, Italy and the United Kingdom were up 15% to 25% compared to the same period in the previous year. In Jakarta, Indonesia, bike sales have increased over 1000%. The introduction of new infrastructure is also facilitating change: in Mexico City cycle use increased by 132% after new cycle lanes were introduced. In some countries, including Italy and the United States, average weekly walking trips have also increased since the start of the pandemic, and especially since the summer began.Some countries have registered net increases in average trips by car for the year to date. In Germany, Japan and the United States, car trips have increased from the pre-pandemic period, while public transport trips remain lower than usual. Road congestion in Bangkok, Beijing and Shanghai has nearly returned to pre-crisis levels as movement restrictions ease.

The pandemic also appears to be boosting active transport modes. Automated bike counters show increases in many North American regions and European countries. In September, for example, bike counts in France, Italy and the United Kingdom were up 15% to 25% compared to the same period in the previous year. In Jakarta, Indonesia, bike sales have increased over 1000%. The introduction of new infrastructure is also facilitating change: in Mexico City cycle use increased by 132% after new cycle lanes were introduced. In some countries, including Italy and the United States, average weekly walking trips have also increased since the start of the pandemic, and especially since the summer began.

Weekly bike count trends by country, 2020 compared with 2019

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The trend towards private transport modes has also been strong in regions where the health crisis has been less extreme. For example, in Estonia, trips by car and walking are 30% higher than before the pandemic, while public transport trips have barely changed. The fact that modal shifts are apparent even in countries where the impacts of Covid-19 have been minor suggests that fear of contracting the virus could be a powerful cause of behavioural changes in the transport sector. A recent survey of attitudes in 25 of the world’s largest energy-using countries indicates that these shifts could persist, with higher shares of people intending to use their cars more than before the pandemic compared with those intending to use their cars less.

The use of shared micromobility services – individualised public transport such as shared bicycles, electric bicycles and electric scooters – plummeted nearly to zero in March and April, but has since begun to recover. Shared bike use has rebounded substantially, particularly in Chinese cities In Beijing, the number of bike sharing users had more than doubled as of May, while averaging longer trip distances (3 km) than before the crisis.

Whether this preference for private transport translates to higher energy use per trip will depend on whether people replace public transport with active transport modes (such as walking and cycling), shared micromobility or cars. Policies will play a major role; several countries have introduced policies to encourage higher active transport use in cities.

Technical efficiency impacts

While the main impact of the pandemic on passenger transport energy demand in 2020 has been the sharp reduction in activity, crisis-induced changes to incomes, fuel prices and policies will also affect transport technical efficiency. Road vehicle replacement rates for 2020 are expected to be lower globally, keeping older, less efficient vehicles in the market for longer.

According to one consumer sentiment survey, new vehicle purchases in the US and European markets will be about 25% lower than normal in 2020. In emerging markets such as China, consumers appear more willing to purchase new vehicles. However, despite recent changes, over 70% of Chinese car buyers are buying their first car, meaning that higher purchasing in this market is unlikely to improve efficiency through vehicle replacements.

In Japan, new car sales and registrations of second-hand vehicles fell in the first half of 2020 compared with 2019. However, while second-hand vehicle registrations had almost returned to 2019 levels by September, new car sales were still at only 84% of 2019 levels, suggesting a slowdown in overall fleet fuel efficiency.

Despite early signs of higher growth in key markets such as China, global car sales are projected to be 16% lower in 2020. 

Global electric car sales by key market, 2015-2020

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Global car sales by key markets, 2015-2020

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Despite lower overall sales, new cars added to the fleet in 2020 will include a larger proportion of electric vehicles, which have a higher level of technical efficiency.

Global electric car sales in 2020 will slightly exceed 2019’s total to reach more than 2.3 million, achieving a record share of 3.2% of car sales, up from 2.5% in 2019. This brings the total number of electric cars on the road worldwide to a new record of about 10 million, around 1% of the global car stock.

Despite the global recession, prices of electric vehicles are continuing to fall because electric cars are gradually becoming competitive in some countries on the basis of the total cost of ownership. This factors in fuel expenses, purchase costs as well as the impact of recent low oil prices, which have eroded the competitiveness of electric vehicles to an extent. In addition, governments have been quick to use stimulus packages to boost financial support for electric vehicles, including USD 12 billion allocated by G20 economies, which will further help to support demand.

References
  1. Retail and recreation includes places like restaurants, cafés, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries and movie theatres, and excludes groceries and pharmacies.