Dorina Pojani on COVID-19 and transport
Dr Dorina Pojani has a range of interests in the transport sphere – public transport, active transport,mobility and accessibility of vulnerable groups, neighbourhood design, pedestrian areas, parking, affordable housing, compact cities, and more.
A Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Queensland, we first met her in our interview, Dr Dorina Pojani: Sees the forest and the trees. We spoke to Dorina again recently and find her both hopeful and cynical about the effects of COVID-19 on transport.
What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?
What I see is a change in the concept of mobility, and that me, people I know, and society at large is limiting their personal mobility. Sometimes they are forced to limit it due to the lockdown, but sometimes they are also choosing to limit personal mobility. In Australia we haven’t had very severe restrictions, but people are still choosing to stay home for protection.
And this goes against our whole idea of mobility, in that we’ve had a liberal democracy where for the longest time we believed the world is our oyster so to speak, and we can just take trips and travel long distances, socialise with people who live a long way from home, take jobs that are far away from home, jump in the car and go wherever we want whenever we want.
The pandemic has changed all of that. Some people are making the choice to stay home, some people are saying, ‘Well, if one particular item of shopping is only available at the corner store then I’ll get I there. If they don’t have what I want, then I don’t need to have it.
Some are making the choice to mainly socialise with people in their neighbourhood, with other friendships put on hold for a while, or perhaps they won’t keep in touch as much with people that live further away, even though we like those people. The physical limitations being what they are, we’re finding interesting people closer to home.
A lot of work has of course moved online, so the pandemic has also show that even for work we don’t really need to commute. In the USA it is being said that one-third of jobs could easily be done online, with a reduced need for an office presence.
What changes would you like to see in transport when the world rights itself post-pandemic?
To be honest I hope that this change, these limitations in mobility, might become permanent. I mean for a long time we’ve been accustomed as a society to the idea that progress is understood as unlimited freedom of movement. That is a strong feeling in democratic societies, places like Australia. And now we’re coming to understand that for sustainability reasons, and right now due to the pandemic, it is best to perhaps put limits on our freedom to move around.
There are parallels to these types of self-limitations in other aspects of life. For example, some people are choosing to limit shopping to only essential items, shopping only for basic foods rather than more ‘exotic’ food or clothing items that require a lot of travel to get here. It’s the same for mobility, the idea of self-limiting our freedom to move.
I hope things like this are here to stay. I hope we go back to the idea of the 15-minute city, or the 30-minute city, where all the things you need are available within a small radius around your home. These concepts have been packaged as a new idea, but in reality they’re a return to the pre-industrial city, where everything was available within a 15-minute walk. I hope that we begin to set our cities up more like that post-pandemic.
And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?
Yes, above is what I would like to happen. But I am very much a cynic and looking at past experience I feel that societies have very short memories. I mean there is that expression, ‘Never let a good crisis got waste!’, use a crisis for positive change, but experience has show that more often or not we do not move to a positive outcome. We forget. Once the crisis alleviates we go right back to our unsustainable ways. I hope in this instance that won’t happen, but I’m afraid it will if we’re not careful.
Is it your feeling that this forgetfulness is a strong chance of happening, or is it just a show of the strength of your cynicism?
Based on experience, based on history, I think there is a strong chance that we’ll just forget and go straight back to where we were.
I know that one of your main interests is active transport. Have you been enthused by the take-up of cycling and walking? And do you think it will be maintained?
My prediction is that it will be maintained a little bit, but not at the level we’re seeing now during the pandemic. I’m afraid the car will return to its alpha position in Australia, and that cars will want their road space back once the movement restrictions are lifted. I hope governments don’t give in, but I’m afraid they will based on what’s happened in the past.
Do you think government leads that conversation, that change? You don’t think individuals will exercise more choice in their transport modes?
I think it’s a combination. Public spaces are owned by government, so yes, governments need to lead that conversation. Roads are government-owned, as are spaces like squares and the like. So yes, government has a big role to play.
In education of the public?
Yes, but mainly in making decisions. Does it want to leave some roads as cyclists-only, or do they want to give those spaces back to cars? The roads are its space, it is its decision.