How COVID-19 changed mobility: A look back from the future
Editorial team·Jan 12, 2021

How COVID-19 changed mobility: A look back from the future

Editorial team
TomTom Blog
Jan 12, 2021 · 5 min read
How COVID-19 Changed Mobility | TomTom Newsroom

From quieter roads to clearer skies, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our world. Are these changes here to stay or will they soon be forgotten? We imagine a future just a few years from now, where the choices we made at this crossroads helped us shape a cleaner, safer, congestion-free reality.

The crisis did not end quickly. Life did not return to the way it was before. COVID-19 caused a massive global reset, forever altering the way we lived, worked and moved. In this new world, our cars are all-electric. We no longer waste hours stuck in rush-hour traffic. In fact, traffic has decreased so much that costly road capacity expansion projects are now a thing of the past. We’ve surpassed emission reduction targets and are on track to be climate-neutral years ahead of schedule.

Sitting here in 2021, these scenarios might seem like science fiction. But they don’t have to remain in the realm of fantasy. This future is within our grasp – if we make bold choices in the here and now.

In many ways, COVID-19 has accelerated shifts in mobility behavior and choices that we have been discussing for years:

  • Telecommuting has been considered as a potential solution for traffic congestion since the 1970s but has never taken hold in a significant way.
  • Cycling, walking and other active transportation modes have long been encouraged as alternatives to driving, but a lack of safe infrastructure and hesitation among the public have delayed their widespread use.
  • Electric vehicle sales have been encouraged with government subsidies and a growing charging infrastructure, but they’ve remained a small percentage of total vehicle sales.

This all started to change in 2020. Working from home became standard for many types of jobs. Bicycle sales skyrocketed while cities scrambled to create new infrastructure. And electric vehicle sales did not experience the drop that conventional vehicles did. In essence, we have all participated in a massive experiment in mobility. The big question is: Are these changes the start of a radically new future or just a passing trend?

In this blog, we’ll imagine a new world just a few years from now, where the results of this experiment have become reality. We’ll outline several future scenarios, sparked by the changes we saw in 2020, and explore the steps we took to achieve them. Here’s what we think mobility might look like beyond 2025.

Visit the TomTom Traffic Index to take a closer look at how the events of 2020 changed traffic.

We think differently about how and when we travel

Many traditional car dealerships closed in the years following the pandemic. They were replaced by new electric carlines as governments brought forward plans to phase out new petrol and diesel vehicles. This accelerated the end of the internal combustion engine in everyday vehicles, resigning it to classic car status.

Consumers embraced the electric vehicle (EV) revolution – and so did automakers, tech firms and city planners. The patchwork of tax breaks, charging stations and connected services we once knew was swiftly replaced with a comprehensive EV infrastructure and new incentives for greener modes of transportation.

Our city centers also look quite different these days. Streets once packed with cars, buses and taxis are much quieter and cleaner. Many municipalities have banned private vehicles altogether, and new mass transit, cycle and shared vehicle hubs have sprung up to move people from the suburbs to cities. In downtown areas, people now have more mobility options to choose from than ever, from robotaxis to e-scooters, all integrated with efficient public transport systems.

We’re more mindful about our travel choices, too. Before, most of us didn’t give a second thought to hopping on a flight to attend a conference or taking the car to drop by a local store. Now, we carefully consider if we really need to make those journeys and we’re more open to alternative, eco-friendly modes of travel. This also means that we have gone back to using public transport and have not substituted travel by single-occupancy vehicles for more efficient options. This is critical for preventing a return to highly congested peak periods or creating even worse traffic and environmental conditions than experienced prior to 2020.

We’re no longer doing business as usual

In 2020, we discovered that working virtually and remotely is not only feasible for most businesses, but it’s preferable for both employers and employees. Businesses did not return to the normal 9-5 workday once restrictions on movement ended. We now have a hybrid of working from home and working from the office.

This shift has dramatically reduced congestion levels and has made the once-dreaded commute an increasingly distant memory. With peak hour traffic no longer increasing year on year, governments don’t have to constantly expand our existing road infrastructure – saving billions in the process.

We have more freedom to choose when we move. Today, we consult daily traffic forecasts in the same way we check the weather: If the roads are busy, we just make plans to travel at a quieter time. It’s added up to less congestion, less emissions and less stress – making our roads safer and greener, and giving us back valuable time.

We’ve reduced emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels

The historic drop in emissions that we witnessed in 2020 wasn't a short-lived anomaly. During the pandemic, we were able to see what happens when we travel less and burn fewer fossil fuels – and that really made us think.

Governments introduced more stringent carbon-reduction targets to meet the Paris Agreement on climate change. Regulators have become even more active within the travel and mobility spheres, tightening CO2 regulations and offering new incentives for carbon-free means of transport. Businesses pivoted to more sustainable practices, and individuals made greener choices. The last few years have shown us that when we work together, we can achieve changes that once seemed impossible, protecting the planet for people to enjoy far into the future.

We can choose our future

All the potential scenarios that we have explored are possible. Some will play out in the coming months and years as we reflect on what matters most to us and decide what kind of future we want – not only for ourselves, but for generations to come.

This crisis is a crossroads, and the direction we take today will shape the world we live in tomorrow. We can either collectively decide to go back to how things were, or we can take a new path towards a cleaner, safer, congestion-free world.

If you’d like our location data to help you in your decision, let’s talk.

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