Gamechanger – How COVID-19 Might Change Transport Forever

Martin Lamb, Prof Alan Stevens and Vijay Ramdas of the Intelligent Transport Experts Network (ITEN) consider the future of transport in the post-Coronavirus future

Transport use dropped dramatically worldwide, to the tune of around 75% as the COVID lockdown was introduced. One of the major positive outcomes is the significant reduction in air pollution due to reduced traffic in all modes, the closing of factories and reduced economic activity.

The shift to homeworking and furloughing of staff, plus avoidance of leisure travel, has been largely responsible for the reduction in road traffic. Prior to COVID, around 5% of the UK workforce was classed as mainly working from home[1], and this increased to about 50% in April 2020; an additional 20% had been furloughed from their employment[2]. Among those new to homeworking, many might want to continue, at least for part of the time, when lockdown restrictions ease. According to a 2009 study[3], it takes between 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and, on average, 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. With many having been working from home for 2 months or more, clearly new habits have, or are being, formed in this area. Whilst it is too early to determine how this will pan out in the future, new research[4] from Hitachi Capital UK has found that a majority of employees want to make radical changes to the way they work once the lockdown lifts.

Some companies have invested in hardware and software to enable their staff to work at home and are evaluating whether they want to continue. The ongoing need for ‘social distancing’ is also making organisations consider their working practices and requirements for office space to fall into line with regulations as well as employee preferences. Large technology firms are already taking the lead, for example Twitter made it compulsory for all its employees worldwide to work from home soon after the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and recently it confirmed that home working is available to its staff ‘forever’[5].

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Simultaneously, the market has changed for physical retail stores (already under significant online pressure) with some chains facing bankruptcy or retreating to an online presence only. Another sector that has been hit hard is hospitality, with increasing uncertainty regarding the ability of restaurants and other eating places to survive in a new world requiring greater separation between clients[6]. These impacts could fundamentally change the urban realm, potentially shrinking the requirement for office, retail and hospitality spaces and potentially offering opportunities for some buildings to be repurposed for housing or other uses.

All the above factors will impact on how and how much people travel.  As resumption of activities begins, traffic growth will continue to be constrained, by the significant impacts associated with maintaining social distancing, both in public transport and in workplaces. The immediate future is therefore likely to involve a lower level of transport use compared to pre-COVID times. Mass public transport and social distancing are hardly compatible and will be unsustainable without massive re-engineering and significant cost. Moving to a longer-term future when the pandemic is “over”, it is unlikely that travel will return to what it was before the outbreak; the question should perhaps not be “what will transport look like?”, but rather, “what should transport look like?”.

In addition to more people choosing to work from home in future, they may also be unwilling or reluctant to travel on business. Equally, businesses may also be less likely to want their staff to travel for business, particularly internationally. COVID restrictions have already seen greater use of online team meetings, webinars for knowledge sharing, and in some cases replacing planned physical conferences. Online meetings have entered not only the work arena but platforms such as Zoom have become a means for families and friends, spread across the world, to meet virtually. This has demonstrated the potential to increase efficiency whilst achieving greater reach, as people only have to find the time to attend the sessions that interest them. From purely environmental and cost points of view, avoiding large numbers of people travelling to events would be a positive outcome.  What online meetings and webinars lack, however, is the interaction and opportunities to network, which are a major feature of face-to-face meetings and physical conferences.  There is therefore a need to better understand the impacts from greatly reduced social contact between people.

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An early beneficiary of COVID was the cycling industry, with a surge in sales of bikes and e-bikes, possibly due to concerns about social distancing on public transport. Reports[7] (BBC 2020) indicate a 200% increase in the use of cycle to work schemes and a large general increase in sales of bicycles and cycling equipment. The same report also noted that some cities in the UK and Europe are looking for innovative ways to rapidly increase cycling and walking capacity of road networks. The UK Government has recently confirmed a £2bn funding package for cycling and walking[8], with protected space for cycling, wider pavements and cycle and bus-only corridors, with £250 million committed in the next few weeks. This will be supported by statutory guidance instructing councils to reallocate road space for increased cycle and pedestrian journeys. Similar moves are being made in other countries around the world[9], all geared to support a move away from cars and potentially relieve pressure on public transport following the pandemic.

Measures could include making some city roads bus and bike only and closing side streets to through traffic to reduce rat-running and creating low traffic environments. There are examples of ‘pop up’ cycle highways being opened, some of which will become permanent. There are also local authorities which are looking for ways to increase and make cycling safer in regional areas[10] such as Basingstoke. Another example is Manchester where increased space for walking and cycling has been created, through measures such as footway extensions, one-way streets and additional cycle lanes to ensure social distancing and exercise during the lockdown and beyond[11].

Commuter cycling is likely to be limited to distances of less than 10 miles, although e-bikes might extend this. There will always remain the issue of the British weather suppressing demand, particularly in winter.

Whilst reduced public transport capacity and concerns surrounding social distancing will encourage some to switch to cycling, many might shift to private car use, at least in the short term, particularly as roads may continue to be less busy than pre-COVID times.

There is, therefore, an onus on public transport providers to encourage and build confidence in the safety of public transport through physical or signage measures that enable social distancing, and an extensive cleaning and disinfecting regime. In certain locations, some forms of biosecurity or testing will be introduced; there are already airports where temperature screening and other tests have been introduced.

The drop in customer numbers will force transport operators to explore options to keep their businesses viable. This could include reducing services and increasing fares, or alternatively attempting to make the services more attractive with a customer focussed experience, a more flexible offering including on-demand options and loyalty cards with offers and  discounts for those who travel frequently.

While the airline industry has been hit hard by the drop in passenger numbers, this has to a small extent been offset by greater demand for freight, e.g. for medical supplies. Additional cargo capacity, over and above that provided by the holds, is being created in passenger planes by modifying the passenger space.  There have also been trials of using passenger trains to carry supplies for the NHS. Whilst the trials had no passengers on board, there could be scope to use passenger trains for parcels and light freight in off-peak times, with a design for sliding seats on commuter trains that could be pushed back to carry freight.

A flexible combination of passenger and freight transport could serve the twin aims of making certain public transport options more financially viable, and moving goods from roads to rail, an inherently lower carbon mode. This could potentially be extended to other modes, such as buses, coaches and even trams, of which there are a few examples[12]. At this stage, however, there is considerable uncertainty about the changes in travel habits; whether ‘quarantine fatigue’ will contribute to greater willingness among the populace to ignore potential health risks or whether new habits, contributing positively to the environment and health, will be adopted on a more permanent basis.

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In times of crisis, new opportunities can emerge. Micro-mobility trials and ‘future mobility zones’ were already being planned as potential solutions for the first/last mile transport; the rail franchise system (already under pressure) could be forced into reform, train operators and other public transport service providers may have to revisit their offerings focussing on more on meeting changed passenger requirements and potentially providing more demand responsive services. Considering the question raised earlier as ‘what should transport look like?’, it is clear that we want to see the gains in air pollution and increase in walking and cycling to continue; this will need strong action and investment from the UK and devolved Governments working with regional and local authorities, to provide safe and well connected routes. This should be integrated with an attractive, well connected public transport offering. Inefficiencies in public transport provision, particularly in rural areas and off-peak times, could be helped with a shift to a combined passenger / cargo offering. Increased home working and online shopping will likely force a change in the urban realm, offering opportunities to not only repurpose office and retail businesses, but also to repurpose some existing road space for pedestrian, cyclist and micro-mobility use.

We cannot be sure how things will work out, but transport in the future will not be the same. What appears certain is that, at least in the short term, more people will work from home, more meetings and conferences will move online, more people are likely to walk and cycle more often and public transport will struggle to attract customers even in large conurbations and international travel will reduce significantly.

A substantial risk is a return to single car use due to requirements for social distancing and reluctance to use public transport. Despite significant discussions and evidence gathering on the merits of road pricing, as yet no UK Government has had the courage to implement it. Since we appreciate that less congested roads are beneficial for emergency users, essential workers and for on-time freight deliveries perhaps some form of road pricing to suppress ‘leisure’/non-essential travel might become more acceptable.

Towns and cities can play a significant role in achieving positive environmental change by repurposing the road space in a way that favours active and public transport; however, the tools for fundamental change reside largely with the devolved administrations for policy and with UK government for fiscal measures. They need to work together, to deliver sustainable solutions for this and future generations.


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[1] (https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/fifth-workers-furloughed-average-ons-figures-show)

[2] (https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/fifth-workers-furloughed-average-ons-figures-show)

[3] Lally, P; Van Jaarsveld, CHM; Potts, HWW and Wardle, J (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010)

[4] https://www.smarttransport.org.uk/news/latest-news/workers-seek-permanent-changes-post-lockdown?utm_campaign=20_05_2020_Smart_Transport_weekly_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Smart%20Transport%20-%20weekly%20newsletter&utm_source=adestra&utm_term=Workers%20seek%20permanent%20changes%20post%20lockdown

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/may/12/twitter-coronavirus-covid19-work-from-home

[6] https://www.bighospitality.co.uk/Article/2020/05/05/Restaurants-reopen-London-UK-Coronavirus

[7] BBC (2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52564351 (accessed 11/05/20)

[8] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/2-billion-package-to-create-new-era-for-cycling-and-walking

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/18/cleaner-and-greener-covid-19-prompts-worlds-cities-to-free-public-space-of-cars?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[10] https://www.basingstokegazette.co.uk/news/18444553.need-radical-lib-dem-councillors-call-rethink-boroughs-transport-infrastructure/ 

[11] https://www.smarttransport.org.uk/news/latest-news/more-uk-cities-fast-track-active-travel-schemes?utm_campaign=13_05_2020_Smart_Transport_weekly_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Smart%20Transport%20-%20weekly%20newsletter&utm_source=adestra&utm_term=More%20UK%20cities%20fast-track%20active%20travel%20schemes

[12] https://www.eurogunzel.com/2018/09/freight-trams-of-europe/

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