Before Covid-19 hit, the Government had begun to set out an agenda that would have seen the transport system transformed. The need to reduce carbon emissions to net zero and bring air pollution within legal limits led the Transport Secretary to promise "bold and ambitious action" to ensure that "public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities".
The effect of Covid-19 on transport has been seismic. But as the UK begins the process of recovery, the need for sustainable transport has only strengthened. By supporting public transport, walking and cycling, the Government can not only improve our environment and our health, but also create jobs, tackle social exclusion and help the economy to recover.
A new report by Campaign for Better Transport, Covid-19 Recovery: Renewing the transport system, sets out the scale of the challenge. Reduced passenger numbers have had profound financial implications for public transport operators, and the continued need for social distancing will impact on fare revenue for the foreseeable future. In the longer term, passenger demand could be affected by increased home-working, public mistrust in the safety of public transport and the expected economic downturn.
Happily, walking and cycling levels rocketed during the lockdown. But with traffic increasing on our roads - motor vehicle use has already grown to two thirds of pre-Covid levels - active travel may soon cease to be an attractive option for many (especially as we reached winter).
The challenge, then, is vast; but so is the opportunity. As our report makes clear, a chance exists now to transform our transport system as part of a green recovery programme, resulting in:
- A world-leading public transport system and improved connectivity
- 100% zero-emission road transport and railway
- Permanent improvements to sustain greater levels of walking and cycling
- Changes to the way transport is paid for, including new means to raise revenue
How can this be achieved in the face of such adversity? Our report calls on the Government to:
- Require local transport authorities to produce plans to permanently reshape local transport networks around active travel, shared and public transport. Future government funding should be linked to these plans.
- Ensure local authorities and bus operators work together to replan bus provision, with better integrated, multi-modal networks. Tendered and franchised services are likely to play more of a role.
- Not return to the previous franchises on the railway and place a greater focus on leisure as well as commuter travel and new industry structures with devolution of control to city regions.
- Accelerate the shift to 100% zero-emission road and rail travel, with support for UK-based manufacturing. It should require all buses to be zero emission, support the shift to electric vans and hydrogen fuelled lorries, and initiate a rolling programme of rail electrification.
- Lock in the shift to active travel with permanent infrastructure changes, ensuring that these do not restrict public transport. E-scooters should be legalised for use on the road and cycle lanes.
- Prioritise infrastructure to support sustainable transport, such as rail reopenings, bus priority and digital systems.
- Establish new sources of raising revenue such as workplace parking levies and road use charges to support the shift to sustainable transport.
Support from the Government has been invaluable in sustaining the transport sector through the crisis so far. But now the Government must increase its ambition and accelerate the delivery of planned improvements to ensure that transport better serves communities across the country.
As the long road to recovery begins, let's make sure we can travel along it on foot, by bike, and by shared and public transport towards a brighter future.