Yoann Demoli (UVSQ, PRINTEMPS) et Pierre Lannoy (ULB, METICES), What is the impact of COVID and of the economic crisis on "new mobilities"?

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Report of the Gerpisa monthly seminar, Number 257, Virtuel (2020)


Yoann Demoli (UVSQ, PRINTEMPS) and Pierre Lannoy (ULB, METICES)

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GERPISA Monthly Seminar n° 257 : Yoann Demoli (UVSQ, PRINTEMPS) and Pierre Lannoy (ULB, METICES), “What is the impact of COVID and the economic crisis on "new mobilities"? An analysis of the links between environmental attitudes and driving behaviours in the context of the crisis”

Yoann Demoli presents the results of the CONDUIRE project, results published in an article in the journal Flux (co-authored with Matéo Sorin and Axel Villareal, 2020/1-2 (N° 119-120). In this research, he focuses on mobilities in the light of the ecological transition of the industry, to which he adds some prospective elements in relation to the Covid crisis.

His starting point is that the role of the car within the process of ecological transition is not sufficiently explored. The car has been the subject of major criticism from the 1960s onwards, from a  radical ecology point of view. Today, however, this discourse is held by large sections of the society. In this respect, the emergence of an ‘’eco-habitus’’ can be noted. However, too much attention is paid to lifestyles, but not enough to mobility in the questions surrounding the ecological transition. Are mobility practices free from environmental concerns?

In order to answer this question, Demoli conducted a quantitative survey (Lifestyles and Environment - SVEN) and a qualitative fieldwork in France as part of a collective research project. Measuring attitudes towards ecology is not an easy task. The team administered the SVEN questionnaire to 2,300 individuals, representative of the French population. This allowed to measure attitudes and opinions as well as some practices (food practices, waste management, energy consumption, etc.). The survey does of course have limitations, but it has the advantage of being used internationally. Finally, thanks to this survey, we know how many cars households have, their age and the use of air conditioning, etc. The survey considers both short trips done for example to run errands (carpooling, car sharing, etc.) and long distance mobilisation (train, plane).

The qualitative survey took place in France. It included a series of interviews with households in peri-urban and semi-rural areas concerning the living environment, residential choices, the choice of car fleet, car usage, the budget allocated to the car, etc.

In relation to the issue of ecological transition, many questions arise. For example, how is car use related to environmental attitudes? Does getting a car influence people's environmental attitudes? Paradoxically, households that have a car have a higher environmental score than others. Can it be said that car equipment then escapes the environmental stakes? For Yoann Demoli, by measuring car equipment, we are in fact measuring an income effect and an age effect. All else being equal, having an environment-friendly attitude does not play a role in the fact of having a car. Having a car allows to solve space-time problems. There is a kind of 'path dependency'. The households that are most attached to the car are those that were socialised early to the car.

In addition, the car plays a strong symbolic role, it marks a frontier with the group of the excluded, it makes it possible to put the poor and the excluded at a distance. The car, even old and therefore costly, represents an important symbolic capital, it symbolises access to the consumer society. Demoli reminds us that, more generally, it is one of the most important goods in society. Classes define themselves also in relation to this good.

Is having a car not the right indicator to measure environmental attitudes? Is it then important to have several cars? The survey shows that multi-motorised households are not particularly different from single-motorised households. In fact, popular households have disjointed timetables, which favours multi-equipment. Dual-income couples are better equipped; they "cannot" do without a second car. Demoli cites the example of a household with four cars: they use multi-equipment as a means of preventing the failures of ageing vehicles.

The car budget fluctuates greatly, unlike other budgets. It is an unpredictable expense, as long as the equipment is old and therefore unpredictable. It is therefore more difficult to convert to ecological behaviours. To this we must add the relationship to atmospheric pollution and CO2 emissions: food enters our bodies, beauty products are applied to our bodies, while vehicle damage is more diluted, which may favour the little investment we make in ecological concerns.

Finally, is diesel a factor that influences environmental attitudes? Yes, according to Demoli. The higher the environmental attitudes, the less we equip ourselves with diesel cars.

In conclusion, Demoli states that individuals are mainly driven by the costs they face, particularly in their residential and professional choices. In terms of how people get to work, the environmental score is higher when using 'soft modes' of travel, like carpooling or car sharing. There are areas where choices are dissonant, but respondents are forced to make do with them.

Demoli also reminds us that it has been widely said that the Covid health crisis was going to have an impact on daily mobility, with orders not to take public transport, to avoid carpooling with strangers, and so on. In reality, all forms of mobility are affected: daily mobility, residential mobility, travel and migration. It can be said that the 20th century has established a society based on mobility and for the first time there is a simultaneous decrease in all mobilities as a result of the crisis. In this regard, he is pessimistic. In his opinion, it is difficult to know what will happen. For the moment the data will be tested by the crisis, in a way "the thermometers are broken." Crises are bad for studying long series.
Demoli nevertheless makes some hypotheses. The effects of the crisis are not homogeneous. Long-distance mobility will be affected, but the effects will concern nations and social groups differently. Future work should produce a "fractal" analysis of the effects of the crisis: by country, by type of mobility, by age group, by social class, by gender. Indeed, the crisis hits everyone at the same time, but the effects will be differentiated. For example, the crisis affects individuals at different points in their life cycle. The data have to be constructed, and for the moment they are poor. The challenge is to cross-reference heterogeneous data and to measure more frequently than large national surveys.

Pierre Lannoy devotes his presentation more to the consequences of Covid-19 on mobility: does the pandemic affect new mobilities?

What are the new mobilities? There is a consensus that these are "green" and "shared" modes of travel. Their novelty lies not only in their technological dimension, but also in their functioning. The new mobilities are those that are different from the automobile (exclusive motoring) and dependency. The old forms of mobility are those which consist of being transported in groups or travelling "alone". The new forms of mobility are then situated between these two alternatives. These would be non-state, non-collective systems, but which allow coordination of the use of vehicles. These are often market mechanisms, which are the meeting point between supply and demand: neither the state nor the 'jungle' of car-riding alone, where inter-individual coordination is lacking.

How does the pandemic affect new mobilities? If the new mobilities have little resistance to what is currently happening, it is because what they offer is not as good as the old mobilities. Collective transport offers the idea of control over travel. In addition, operators are used to managing flows of people and managing crisis situations (e.g. terrorism). Finally, car solo driving offers a tried and tested response: the protective bubble of the car makes it possible to cope with crisis. For their part, the new forms of mobility do not offer a fallback position. They are too new and have not been tried and tested. They do not offer a framework of confidence.

For Lanoy, despite their resilient dimension, the current pandemic does not only affect new mobilities, but also old ones. Automobility (the desire to move in different directions, at different times, at will) has become generalised and stabilised in the West. This requires certain conditions: we circulate in an homologated technical environment, we circulate because we are authorised to do so, we circulate according to codified procedures.

In the current context, the circulation of the virus has to be stopped, which means that our self-mobility is in crisis, because we are potentially carriers of the virus. This crisis makes the social conditions of self-mobility visible. It brings us closer to wartime, when auto-mobility was also in crisis. In a way, the possible conditions of self-mobility become apparent again. Places become explicitly infrastructures for movement. The markings on the ground, the authorisations to circulate are put in place, the gestures must conform (wearing a mask, keeping a distance). Mobility in times of pandemic is a paroxysmal manifestation of the "forgotten" conditions of mobility in times of health peace.


Discussion by Bernard Jullien (University of Bordeaux)

1. There is a discrepancy between the way in which the "elites" think about the new mobilities and the real dependence of a large part of the population on the car. This is the tension between the 'Parisian elite' and the rural world on the way of thinking about alternative forms of mobility. The survey presented by Demoli shows that environmental values and automobile practices are untied. Moreover, peri-urbanisation can paradoxically be thought of as an ecological choice (living in less polluted and less densely populated areas). However, in order to do so, one becomes more dependent on vehicles. We are faced with an impossible schizophrenia between environmental concerns and social mobility practices. The constraints on households are too big. The car fleet will continue to grow and age.

2. It is interesting to question the new mobilities against the yardstick of the old mobilities. When it comes to studying a 'revolution', it is also necessary to know what already exists. This is a basic methodological principle that is often forgotten. The new mobilities must therefore be questioned from there: there is individual transport and collective transport and the new mobilities lie between the two. There is therefore an intellectual and public policy space for new mobilities. The digital enters into this, presented as a way of leveling out or even replacing the "modal shift" provided by the State and public operators. However, this is an illusion, which consists in making people believe that the digital players are going to create a disruption and take charge of mobilities.

Even before the Covid there were doubts among the defenders of the new mobilities, there were already disillusions. In fact, the new mobilities were going to settle where they were least needed (cf. report of the CONDUIRE project). The Covid crisis seems to confirm this. Will the 'new world' nevertheless resemble the old one? The question remains open.


Yoann Demoli: We can indeed speak of schizophrenia (cf. article in AOC, "The great gap in contemporary motoring: an inescapable socio-political terrain"). It should not be forgotten that the criticism of the car is not only linked to radical ecology. There is also a technocratic or bourgeois critique of the car. It can also be said that the periurban can be seen as a paradoxical appetite for nature and space. For example, in the USA national parks are visited by car, the car is the framework for experiencing nature.

Pierre Lannoy: The new mobilities have two enemies (on a practical level and on an ideological level). There is an individual retreat from the car, yet some people prefer to fall back on the efficiency of public transport in large cities. The forces that structure society are not only political choices, or even markets as such, but also the constraints on individuals. The Collectif Rosa Bonheur worked on the city of Roubaix in La ville vue d'en bas (Amsterdam, 2019): there is a centrality of the car in a very poor and precarious environment. The automobile is used as a resource in an informal economy. The car continues to structure household budgets, especially for working-class households.

Bernard Jullien: Today the new mobilities are caught between the inevitability of the individual car and public transport. The rise of the bicycle is the rise of an individual means of transport. The debate is ill-informed, even though science has been producing relevant results for a long time.

Question: The car is structuring, it is deeply embedded in contemporary society. But it is not a discovery, it is the industry of the 20th century and the symbol of modernity. Discussions on new forms of mobility are being led by digital players, including those from Silicon Valley. New technologies play an important role in the discourses, but not really in reality. Would these new technologies be a brake on new mobilities? Politicians delegate choices to the market and to digital, whereas it is a political question of regulating society. Should digital be denounced as an obstacle to solving the real political problems of the new mobilities and is the Covid-19 crisis the opportunity to do so?

Question : The first confinement produced the illusion of a new world: the world has stopped, so anything is possible. The Covid-19 would have created a possible space for reflection. Can we say that there is a discrepancy between the pause experienced by the intellectuals and the real world, which was very "old"?

Question: Is there a socio-economic environment where transport habits and environmental attitudes converge?

Question: Is public transport still a relevant alternative to new forms of mobility? But there is a reluctance to use closed spaces because of the Covid-19. Moreover, teleworking and social distancing have had the effect of restricting the use of public transport. How do mobility operators deal with the contradictory situation of having to provide transport and reduce frequency?

Lannoy: Mobility is a fact, it must be provided. As has been said, the material conditions for mobility have been in place in the West since the 20th century. Mobility is something that is available. But Covid-19 calls this into question. The Covid-19 has crushed a lot of things, including mobility. As far as digital technology is concerned: if digital technology has not yet succeeded in coordinating mobilities, is it not seeking to replace them? Through teleworking, distance learning? With regard to public transport: there is a risk of consequences in public transport that cannot yet be predicted.

Demoli: The structures are winning massively. Mobilities are held by structures. In reality, we are moving in the "next world" to what existed in the world before. There has been significant talk about teleworking in the press, but little about those who still use public transport during the confinement. In rural and peri-urban France, people moved around a lot during confinement, especially in "essential" or blue-collar jobs.
Who are the most pro-environmental people in our survey? They are those who travel the least by car over short distances, but who travel the most over long distances. A book is being prepared on these questions based on our survey. Finally, more than income, we need to look at the budget. It allows us to better grasp the trade-offs.

Question: The fixed costs of transport will increase? Who is going to pay for the year 2020/year Covid.

Question: Dominique Méda challenged the issue of the hierarchy of professions during the health crisis. Is there any data on the journeys that have remained? Which were abandoned, which were maintained?

Question : The need for cars is not decreasing, on the contrary it is increasing. Will it be possible to achieve the objectives in terms of CO2? Or are we going against the wall?

Lannoy : Since the 1970s, the replacement of real travel by new technologies has been announced. But this is not the case. Does this mean that nothing is going to change? In any case, for the moment, there is no substitution of face-to-face by digital. Unfortunately there is no data on journeys during confinement. As far as the environmental objectives are concerned, today it is not tenable to abandon the objectives, it is not politically dictable. Even if reaching these objectives becomes difficult.

Demoli: There starts to be data on certain territories on journeys during confinement, but these are limited data. We can only speak in relation to specific spaces and regions.
Jullien: The algorithms are designed according to models that are not very inspired by real mobilities. There are biased perceptions about mobilities. However, we must continue to say that we must decarbonise the car fleet.


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