Our changing perceptions of space and time

Enlighten • Pulse #6 • 4 min
By Adeline Tissier By Nathalie Ortar Anthropologist and ethnologist

Have attitudes to mobility changed since the outbreak of the pandemic? Will there be a lasting impact on the relationship between home, work and travel? To find out the answers to these questions and more, Pulse spoke to Nathalie Ortar, a senior researcher in social anthropology with the Transport, Urban Planning and Economics Laboratory (LAET).

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Nathalie Ortar, social anthropologist and the senior researcher at the ENTPE engineering school’s Transport, Urban Planning and Economics Laboratory (LAET) in Lyon

How were people affected by the restrictions on movement imposed during lockdown?

People reacted very differently to lockdown depending on their personal situation – for example whether they live alone or with others – their work situation – for example whether they have a stable job or not – and their living conditions such as home size and availability of creature comforts. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated all sorts of inequalities.
And yet, people were most affected not by the restrictions on movement but by the lack of social interaction. For people who couldn’t work or were working from home, not being able to get around actually turned out to be a non-issue. Freed from their daily commute, which is often perceived as an additional burden and a waste of time, many people responded to the lack of mobility with a sigh of relief.

Has the whole Covid experience changed people’s mobility expectations?

I wouldn’t say it’s changed their expectations, but it has amplified a trend that was already under way. People are increasingly attracted to mobility solutions that are cleaner, quieter and more enjoyable. The pandemic revealed both the desire and the need to take more decisive action in this regard.
But let’s be clear. People are not rejecting mobility; they’re simply aspiring to a different kind of mobility. Minimising travel time is no longer the main priority. Today, people are willing to spend more time in transit provided they get something else out of their journey, whether that be additional comfort or peace of mind, a smoother journey, a nice view or just a heightened sense of well-being.

So, there’s been a change in people’s perception of both space and time?

Yes, a radical change. Restrictions on movement have altered the way people view their home and their workplace and, by extension, the way they see space and time. Space has been reduced and time extended.
Obviously, things were very different for key workers – healthcare staff and people working in essential shops and services – because they still had to travel to and from work. Their concerns about the spread of the virus often centred around those journeys.

Does all this call into question the mobility model we know today?

People are now weighing up the necessity of each journey and are willing to travel less than before. So the model is certainly evolving. This is perfectly illustrated by the fact that part of the population has embraced a life without car – a concept that has become a viable possibility people are slowly coming to accept. But it can also be seen in the growing popularity of walking and bicycle. Associated with a negative social image for many years, bicycle has been particularly neglected by certain categories of the population, such as women, young people, manual labourers and the working classes. Today, its image is changing.
And the market is booming all over the world, including in France, the UK, Germany and the United States.

But it’s not only mobility that’s being called into question, is it?

No, certainly not. In the interviews I conducted during and after lockdown, it was clear that almost everyone was questioning the way we live today. People are searching for simplicity in all areas. Consumers are attracted to shorter supply chains, employees want more seamless work practices, and citizens are calling for reductions in energy use. We can therefore expect major organizational changes, in homes, businesses and cities.

What questions has the crisis raised for cities?

The pandemic has confirmed the viability of new work methods, forcing public authorities and businesses to rethink the balance between workplace and living space. I believe that the trend will ultimately be to bring them closer together, even if that takes years.
The current climate is also putting pressure on cities to speed up their transition to cleaner energy solutions, as citizens continue to express their environmental concerns in no uncertain terms. The apparent origin of the virus has also played a part. In fact, in this regard, the pandemic may well serve as a driving force for positive change.

Nathalie Ortar

Social anthropologist and the senior researcher at the ENTPE engineering school’s Transport, Urban Planning and Economics Laboratory (LAET) in Lyon. Her work focuses on the connections and relationships between families, lifestyles, and day‑to-day and professional mobility.


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