The Legacy of COVID-19 on Urban Mobility: An International Comparison of Public Policy and Urban Planning


  • Leah Gerber German Chancellor Fellow, Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik; former Principal Planner, Arlington County, Virginia
  • Alexander Cox German Chancellor Fellow, Initiative for Advanced Urbanism and A..I; former White House Deputy Director for Economic Mobility


Active mobility, comparative urbanism, post-COVID cities, Inclusive public space




The COVID-19 pandemic played out most visibly on city streets–once vibrant spaces and corridors turned quiet as the predictable rhythms of urban life were upended. As people rapidly shifted their routines and behaviors, public policy makers and urban planners had to respond with flexible policy and creative planning that allowed cities to quickly adjust to a very different reality. Public spaces were transformed so that residents could walk, bike, and roll more safely. Public transit systems worked to serve dependent populations, even while losing up to 75 percent of ridership (Finbom et al., 2021). While many of these changes were a direct response to the pandemic, they also served to demonstrate how cities could be reshaped to accommodate more equitable, sustainable, and diverse forms of mobility. Four years after the onset of COVID-19, this paper will examine to what extent the pandemic changed the trajectory of transportation systems by comparing select cities in Germany and in the United States. 

At the federal and multilateral levels, economic recovery and stimulus funding supported local governments in implementing mobility projects, and in many cases were designed to encourage innovative planning. In Europe, the €800 billion NextGenerationEU plan was built around themes such as equality, sustainable mobility, and the green transition (European Commission, 2024). In the United States, the White House released guidance to all federal agencies on how to use resources from the American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and other legislative packages to advance equitable urban development (White House, 2023). In both instances, the combination of generational investments, enabling policy, and sudden shifts in urban life created the opportunity for cities to reimagine and reinvent public space and mobility. 

Use of public transit immediately decreased in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Google, 2021). However, there was a mode shift towards cycling and walking in most European countries and the United States (Abdullah, 2020). The dramatic drop in public transit usage caused many planners to fast track construction of active mobility projects, many of which were launched as temporary interventions. Berlin implemented temporary pop-up bike lanes, pedestrian zones, and play streets, and constructed 25 kilometers of bike lanes with relatively low-cost materials to serve residents, many of whom were trying to avoid public transit. The city implemented pedestrian zones on major streets, including the busy central commercial corridor Friedrichstrasse. Similarly to Berlin, the District of Columbia transformed public space in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Washington, DC expanded its active transportation network through its Slow Streets Initiative, creating more space for residents to safely spend time outdoors walking and biking. The city also prioritized its public transportation system through a Car Free Lanes program that allowed buses to travel more efficiently while also creating room for cyclists. 

Four years later, some of these transportation projects remain in place while others have been reverted. What policies and planning allowed for temporary infrastructure to become permanent? And how can planners and policy makers demonstrate the success of pandemic-era mobility projects to ensure they are seen not just as emergency interventions but as a positive and lasting redefinition of urban space?


Finbom, M., Kębłowski, W., Sgibnev, W., Sträuli, L., Timko, P., Tuvikene, T., Weicker, T. (2021). COVID-19 and public transport: insights from Belgium (Brussels), Estonia (Tallinn), Germany (Berlin, Dresden, Munich), and Sweden (Stockholm). (Forum IfL, 40). Leipzig: Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde e.V. (IfL). urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-72915-0

Google COVID‐19 Community Mobility Trends (2021), COVID‐19: Google Mobility Trends, Our World in Data. Available at <‐google‐mobility‐trends>. Accessed on November 3, 2020.

Abdullah, M. , Dias C., Muley D. & Shahin M. (2020), Exploring the Impacts of COVID‐19 on Travel Behavior and Mode Preferences. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives 8, 100255. 10.1016/j.trip.2020.100255.

European Commission (2024), Recovery and Resilience Scoreboard. Available at <>. Accessed on October 2, 2023.

The White House (2023), Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Advancing Equitable Community and Economic Development in American Cities and Urban Communities. Available at <>. Accessed on May 26, 2023.