• Concerns about COVID-19 mean more people are using cars instead of public transport, according to a new report.
  • Too many cars on the road increases problems such as traffic jams, noise and pollution.
  • The fall in public transport use is expected to persist, so policymakers are being encouraged to develop new initiatives to make it more appealing.

Fears of the novel coronavirus are driving commuters off public transport and back to the car, researchers have said, urging cities to respond quickly to changing habits and lure travellers to green options.

Cities face a pivotal moment as they build back from a pandemic that has reshaped work, life and travel, according to the "Mobility Futures" report, which surveyed 9,500 residents in 13 cities worldwide.

"People feel more protected in their car than in public transport," said Guillaume Saint of the consumer research organisation Kantar, which carried out the research, adding that a shift to green travel would now be slower than thought.

"We know that public transport is one of the solutions in order to avoid having too much jams, too much traffic, too much noise and pollution, driven by the automotives in the cities, so there is a big challenge here."

The impacts of the pandemic will "fundamentally shape the future of urban mobility" said the report, which polled residents in big cities including New York, Chicago, Beijing, Mumbai and Paris.

Feeling delighted with current mode of transport
Public transport was at the bottom of preferred modes of transport for those surveyed.
Image: Kantar/Mobility Futures Report 2021

Work-from-home policies and remote schooling led to a significant drop in urban journeys - a scenario likely to continue as many institutions embrace hybrid working, it found.

City dwellers also spent more time locally and looked to cut their human contact to reduce the spread of infection.

The share of journeys made by bike or on foot rose by 3% on average during the pandemic, the report found, but that shift was far outweighed by a 5.6% drop in the percentage of journeys by public transport and a 3.8% rise in those by car.

Last year's Mobility Futures report predicted that journeys made by green transport would overtake those by car by 2030.

While Saint said he expects the fall in public transport use to persist, he said cities have a one-off chance to transform.

Authorities can capitalise on a growing enthusiasm for biking and walking, while temporary bike lanes in some cities showed it was possible to nudge residents towards green choices.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

"They can entice people back to public transport with flexible tariffs for part-time commuters, offering tickets that are valid on multiple types of transport, and making stations more bike-friendly," said Saint. "Mayors need to heed the call of thousands of European urbanites who are crying out for more space for walking, cycling, public transport and greenery," said Barbara Stoll from European environmental campaign group Transport & Environment.

"Although there is a shift back to driving, this is a crucial window of opportunity for policy makers to embrace the solutions that provide cleaner alternatives to polluting cars."