Examining the impact of COVID-19 on road safety and sustainable mobility in the EASST region
The full impact of COVID-19 on road safety and sustainable mobility is not yet known. What we do know is that the way we are traveling has changed, and that preventable road crashes still continue.
In the EASST region, the majority of countries have been locked down and many are only now seeing the peak of cases. It will still be several months before ‘normal’ life resumes. Nevertheless, it is important not to forget about road risk or let it fall off the political agenda.
Last month we conducted a survey of our EASST partners to get a feel for the impact of COVID-19 in their countries in terms of road safety and mobility. The results have highlighted some key themes which are common to all, including reductions in car and public transport use, increases in walking and cycling, improvements in air quality, and increased use of delivery services. We will use this data to examine what lessons can be learned and how we can respond to the post-COVID ‘new normal’.
In most EASST countries, our partners reported reductions in motorised traffic on the roads. In Georgia, the use of private cars was banned for 10 days. In Almaty, Kazakhstan local media reported a five-fold decrease in the number of private vehicles on the road during the month of March.
In Azerbaijan, restrictions on travel also led to a decrease in the number of traffic crashes reported. In the first week of lockdown an average of one crash per day was being registered by the police, with six injuries recorded compared to the same period last year when eight people were killed and 25 people injured.
Another frequently cited result of reduced car travel has been the notable improvement in air quality. According AirKaz, a site that publishes data on air quality in Bishkek, the number of small particulates (harmful substances) in the air has reduced significantly as a result of the strict restrictions on movement in the city – where car travel was banned except for those with special permits.
This is good news for Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, but in at least 50% of EASST countries – calmer roads have also led to increased speeding. In Moldova, a number of drivers have taken advantage of the clear roads to speed through the capital city while filming their antics for social media. Several videos as reported by autoblog.md show drivers going up to 200km/h. In Armenia and Greece, despite the number of overall road crashes being down, the number of fatalities has increased. This pattern has been observed in a number of countries around the world, including the United States and suggests more severe crashes are occurring as a result of increased speeding and reckless driving. In Georgia, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan there have been specific calls for reduced speed limits.
All EASST partners also reported a reduction in public transport use. Several countries have seen public transport either closed entirely or restricted, and all have seen a lack in demand due to lockdown restrictions. Public transport data for Greece shows a 55% decrease in the number of people passing through bus, metro and rail stations in March and April, dropping as low as -80% at the peak of the crisis.
In an article published last month, EASST partner Gela Kvashilava of Partnership for Road Safety in Georgia discussed this issue in detail. He highlighted that one of the main barriers to restoring public transport use will be a lack of confidence in safety and hygiene. He argues that in order to re-build, we will need “a comprehensive strategy and funding that focuses on the recovery of the transport system by reducing the risk of infection but also building public trust”. In a region where private car travel is already dominant, not only restoring public transport use but increasing its use from pre-COVID levels will be one of the challenges we face.
For many countries around the world, physical distancing requirements and the reduction in use of motorised vehicles has led to a marked increase in walking and cycling. Cities from Milan to Bogota to New York have all been closing streets to cars and giving over more space to non-motorised road users and al fresco businesses. For years, the road safety community have been calling for such changes.
In response to our survey, just over half of EASST partners reported increases in walking and cycling as a result of lockdown measures, notably many countries have seen an increased use of cycle lanes. Several partners reported an increased awareness of street design and calls for a more equal allocation of space for pedestrians and cyclists compared to motor vehicles across local media, social media platforms, and in some cases, government announcements.
Car-free streets are better for road safety, public health and the economy. In February, our partners Young Generation of Tajikistan (YGT) were awarded €3000 as part of Youth For Road Safety’s Impact Generator challenge for their proposal, supported by EASST, to mobilise young people to reclaim space for walking and cycling in Dushanbe. We are looking forward to helping YGT get started on this project and hope that by building on the momentum we have seen in the last few months it can become an example for other countries in the region, particularly in Central Asia.
Another area that has seen a marked change since the beginning of the pandemic is the increased use of delivery services and associated road risk. We have a dedicated article on this issue here.
In terms of moving forward, there is a growing acknowledgement amongst the region’s governments that more investment preventative health measures is needed, and there is a growing awareness amongst the public of the benefits of safer roads and car-free roads. We will work with our EASST partners to build on this: to continue to raise awareness and to keep it on the agenda so that all our countries can build back better and safer.