Who's Who

Ali Soltani on COVID-19 and transport


Ali Soltani is a professor of urban planning who specialises in land use-transport interaction. He is a faculty member of Shiraz University, Iran, now with UniSA Creative, the University of South Australia.

His research areas include non-motorised transport; transport in developing countries, sharing mobility; big data and computational urban planning and policy analysis.

Here, he applies his thoughts on the big transport issue of the day, the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?

The changes that occurred in society during restrictions caused by COVID-19 showed the significance of transport and mobility, especially in the areas of business and economy. Without transport, cities are dead; mobility is the soul of our cities and settlements, mobility is the driving force of liveability and interaction.

We’ve seen an average of 60% less congestion and peak demands on road networks due to pandemic restrictions, with declines in trips for work, education, shopping, and recreation. This has had many positive effects, such as decreasing the number of vehicle accidents, decreasing emissions and air pollution, and decreasing fuel consumption. This is in addition to a decrease in fuel and car prices. Further positive impacts of COVID-19 were an increase in the volume and frequency of non-motorised travel, especially walking and cycling.

Another significant impact was replacing the journey to work with working from home. While some European countries like the Netherlands have long enjoyed the benefits of working from home, for Australia, this was the first time it has been put into widespread practice. And it has been a positive change. We’ve also managed to sustain working standards and, in some cases, even seen an increase in productivity.

This was particularly evident for white-collar workers with working hours of 9 to 5. For many years, we have been discussing transport demand management policies in academic and professional areas – COVID-19 has forced us to put it into action.

What changes would you like to see in transport when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

As a transport-urban planner academic, the most desirable outcomes of this period have been seeing positive changes to urban space by allocating more space for walking/cycling; widening footpaths and creating bike lanes to facilitate the natural movement of citizens. Several temporary and tactical urban design projects have been implemented in Australia and in other countries such as England, Spain, Germany and the United States in favour of walking and cycling. Many on-street parking spaces are being removed to facilitate the movement of pedestrians and cyclists. If these measures continue, we will see more human-friendly cities and more interactive public spaces.

COVID-19 provided us with a great opportunity to make a paradigm shift from a non-stop, motorised, and capitalised society towards a slower, non-motorised and more social community. It made us rethink and revise our priorities, shifting from mega projects to minimal and small-scale projects in the hope of higher efficiency and greater sustainability.

What I would like to see is more sustainable transport projects put into action – we have discussed many such sustainability discourse for years in academia and professional communities.

And what changes do you think will happen post-pandemic?

New concepts such as resiliency, multimodality, flexibility, inclusiveness, safety (bio-security) and smartness will be highlighted in the transport field on both sides of demand and supply.

We can no longer rely on a single model, we need more alternatives with higher flexibility and resilience. COVID-19 forced travellers to consider changing their preference from fast- moving transport in order to achieve shorter travel times, to safer movement within a reasonable travel time.

The paradigm shift in transport has pushed us to reconsider the concept of mobility, to transfer from non-essential long trips into purposeful but shorter trips. Smart systems and new approaches such as Mobility as a Service, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and connected and automated vehicles (CAV) will be given more opportunity for development and priority in the policy decision making area.

The changes in travel behaviour will affect the running of public transport, with lower capacity and less demand, resulting in lower revenue and higher financial hardship. This will necessitate more intervention and subsidies from the government. It will take a long time to lure mass travellers back to public transport and achieve its maximum capacity, which in turn will adversely affect the industry of public transport service provision.

In the urban planning/design field, we will see a reawakening of local neighbourhoods, fostered community interaction, and improvement in the quality of residential precincts. Further mixed land use will be preferred to exclusionary and single zoning plans.

The design of the home will move towards including provision for a second office. Other expected outcomes are more efficient usage of floor area and flexibility in accommodating different activities in the same area. These changes are all consistent with the paradigm shift towards urban mobility on a human-scale.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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