City dwellers are favouring travel methods that reduce their proximity to others, presenting an opportunity for electric powered mobility devices © EPA-EFE

As Covid-19 lockdowns begin to ease, data suggest that transport habits are changing due to the pandemic and may not return to pre-coronavirus patterns.

City dwellers are shunning public transport in favour of travel methods that increase social distancing, presenting an opportunity for electric mobility devices.

“Covid is going to be an accelerator for the transition to more sustainable mobility,” says Kersten Heineke, who leads the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility in Europe, a unit of McKinsey management consultancy. “This situation . . . is a chance to build up to a new normal.”

A survey by Lime, an electric scooter company, found that a higher share of people in cities including Berlin, London and Seoul say they expect to use e-scooters more frequently than before the virus.

Bar chart of % of survey respondents using, or planning to use, shared e-scooters at least once a week showing E-scooters could be a more popular way to travel in the future

A potential increase in demand for more solitary forms of transport was highlighted in a McKinsey survey — conducted in June across four European countries, the US, China and Japan. The study suggested a higher share of people would use cars, bikes or devices such as e-scooters and e-bikes than did before the virus struck.

Risk of infection was the main reason for choosing a particular mode of transport, rather than speed or cost.

Walking and cycling are also seen as viable alternatives to public transport. In London, demand for Santander’s cycle rental scheme — nicknamed “Boris bikes”, after former London mayor and now UK prime minister Boris Johnson — has never been higher.

Line chart of weekly hires of London's Santander Cycle Hire Scheme, rolling sum ('000s) showing demand for 'Boris bikes' hits record high

Road, cycle and pedestrian networks are being adapted in many European cities to help commuters to keep social distancing. 

The UK announced a £2bn package for a “new era for cycling and walking” that includes “pop-up bike lanes” and the widening of pavements for pedestrians. The use of rental e-scooters on public roads has just been legalised after trials were fast-tracked.

Walking and biking are gaining in popularity

Although cycle and pedestrian-friendly networks might prove successful while many people work from home, the new infrastructure may come under pressure when traffic picks up.

Despite these concerns, some researchers believe things will not return to the way they were before the virus. “The trend is going to continue,” says Mr Heineke. “Cities will step up their investment in bike lanes . . . that’s going to have a knock on effect for e-scooters because there’s simply more infrastructure to use them.”

Line chart of weekly Google searches for 'ebike', rebased against peak showing spike in interest for electric bikes

“This moment where cars have been pulled off our streets and people are enjoying walking and biking . . . could be transformative,” says Calvin Thigpen, director of policy research at Lime. “It could help flip the switch to long-term adoption of micro-mobility.”

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