Published 2021-04-21

This post is also available in Swedish

No more sniffing other people’s armpits: new demands on public transport

Working from home is here to stay. There is a need for more creative urban planning. New demands are also placed on public transport now that we’re no longer used to sniffing another person’s armpit in the rush hour. During the Mistra SAMS — Sustainable Accessibility and Mobility Services results conference, sustainable mobility in urban environments after COVID-19 was discussed.

Most people in the panel discussion during the Mistra SAMS results conference agreed that the coronavirus crisis has had and will continue to have a positive impact on sustainable mobility in urban regions. This is mainly because teleworking is here to stay. It is also, however, about a matter of seizing the opportunity — to keep developing the positive trends and raise questions and challenges.

‘Politicians need to continue to push for the positive changes and create space for forms of mobility other than the car. We’ve seen this development more in other cities. At the same time, car dependency has grown, and if we’re working from home, we may need more living space. If there’s a tendency to move away from cities, the question of well-functioning public transport and sharing services arises,’ says Frances Sprei, Associate Professor and researcher in sustainable mobility at Chalmers University of Technology.

Kristoffer Tamsons (Moderate Party), Regional Chair for Transport at Region Stockholm, believes that cities and public transport will regain their importance. But in future, expectations and requirements — regarding such aspects as congestion and how, where and when we travel — will be different.

Karolina Skog, member of the Riksdag and spokesperson on economic policy (Green Party), and Mistra SAMS board member, also believes that the ‘norm’ that public transport equals congestion will be challenged and lead to quality improvements. However, she points out that some urban centres and areas are at risk of dying out when there are changes not only in commuting, but in retailing.

‘It’s a trend we’ve seen in the US and that I think we’ll continue to see. I also believe that not just employees, but also employers, have gained a taste for teleworking since it’s cost-effective. There’s recently been a government measure imposing a permanent 30 per cent travel cutback on all government agencies from this year. In terms of walking and cycling, I believe active policies can consolidate trends like this.’

Because of the pandemic, but also ongoing individualisation, comfort is increasingly in demand and this means that we want to travel in other ways. Public transport will, to a greater extent, be about creating sustainable small-scale solutions in effective urban corridors. This is the opinion of Magnus Fredricson, Strategist for Sustainable Development at the Skaraborg Association of Municipalities.

Barriers to desirable behavioural changes

To meet the new expectations regarding public transport, Tamsons highlights the potential of digitisation and artificial intelligence (AI). People should be able to tailor their journeys more easily, and he highlights examples of public transport, bike-sharing and car-sharing services being connected in a single app.

‘We’re also working on AI in a way we haven’t done before — how we can reverse classic traffic planning and, instead, plan traffic to predict public transport. Here, we have an exciting project in Södertälje.’

Anna Wildt Persson, Chief Strategist at the Swedish Transport Administration, thinks that to create positive change, we also need to have discussions about aspects outside the transport system that may hinder the transition.

‘For example, how job culture and policies change and what barriers there are to desirable behavioural changes.’

On the question of the most important policy instruments and measures, Francis Sprei highlights urban planning that enables and facilitates combinations of various mobility solutions.

Tamsons also raises future urban development and new ways of thinking about urban planning, which is an important issue for continued collaboration between academics and practitioners.

Skog also emphasises the importance of obtaining more knowledge about leisure travel and developing attractive offers that connect urban environments and rural areas.

‘Mobility itself is uninteresting. The interesting thing is understanding and enhancing accessibility. We need to understand more about what better access helps to bring about, and what difficulties a lack of access creates,’ Fredricson says.

The Mistra SAMS research programme is now entering its second phase, with another four years of research. One important element of the second phase is to look more at travel in everyday life, in particular. For example, another ‘living lab’ will be launched, this time in Riksten in Tullinge, south of Stockholm.

Read more about Mistra SAMS’ work here.