The Covid-19 pandemic has been a significant test for the public transport system, and public communications from the government and media should be carefully calibrated to avoid irreparably damaging people’s confidence in services.
Looking back to the start of the outbreak, public transport use started declining sharply from early February when news of the virus began featuring daily. Then, during the lockdown, bus use declined to 15 per cent, and tube/rail use to less than ten per cent, of their usual levels as everyone except key workers was told to "stay home, save lives". For transport operators telling people not to travel, while still burning through cash to keep the networks open, must have felt illogical.
As we gradually start to inch out of lockdown, the Government’s message has changed from "stay home" to "stay alert", but unfortunately, the Government seems unaware of the impact of its message on the future of transport use. In his statement to Parliament on 11th May, the Prime Minister was clear: "people should continue to avoid public transport wherever possible (...) Instead, people should drive or better still walk or cycle." The reasoning behind this message is understandable: the threat of infection is still with us and social distancing is needed to help minimise transmission, and it severely reduces capacity on buses, trains and metro services, which should then be prioritised for people who absolutely need to travel.
Nevertheless, the harsh “avoid public transport” message can be interpreted as it being unsafe to use, potentially damaging people’s trust in the long term. The levels of concern are already showing in Transport Focus’ recent survey where 41 per cent of respondents said they won’t use public transport for any reason until they feel safe. This has increased significantly in the week following the Prime Minister’s message.
The implications of this are huge. Recent analysis has suggested that use of public transport could return to around 55-60 per cent of its pre-crisis levels in the short term and 18-26 per cent lower than pre-crisis levels in the medium term. If reduced use of public transport persists, operators will have no choice but to rethink their services, potentially cutting routes and frequency.
This will hurt the most those who are left the most disadvantaged when without transport: disabled, older, younger people and those on lower income who may be more reliant on public transport connections. We have had non-car owners get in touch with us who fear losing their job as they don’t know how they will travel to work, given they are being warned by government that public transport isn’t safe. They may end up permanently disconnected from jobs, education, public services, shops and their friends and family.
Making passengers feel that it is safe to use the public transport system again is paramount. The Government has recommended that passengers should wear face coverings and that operators should make hand sanitiser readily available – which will help to a degree. But more should be done to manage its use at this time to retain the confidence of passengers, including reviewing the efficacy of the 2 metre social distancing rule, pre-booking of seats where possible, and providing information on how busy services are. More constructive messages about the alternatives to travelling, such as working from home and shopping locally, as well walking and cycling as much as possible will also help ensure there is sufficient capacity for people who cannot work from home or have no other means of travel.
Potentially even more damaging than the message not to use public transport, however, is the government’s message that driving is the primary alternative. For those who already own cars, this reinforces that driving may be the natural first choice during the pandemic, even perhaps for short journeys that could be walked. This message helps wire in a new default for beyond the pandemic and normalise travelling by car where people may previously have chosen to walk, cycle or use public transport.
In addition, some non-car owners who used to travel by public transport may now be pushed into driving. While some will hopefully switch to cycling and walking for journeys, those living outside of city centres, in smaller cities and towns, in rural areas, or people with young families, for example, may feel no choice but to buy a new car to enable them to travel. With sales plummeting during the lockdown, traders will likely want to entice buyers back with special offers, while historically low fuel costs will be another factor.
The consequence of a significant shift away from public transport towards driving can be detrimental for everyone. Increased traffic would increase congestion, disrupting those making essential journeys and deliveries. It would also increase harmful air pollution and carbon emissions, reversing good progress that had been made in many cities before and during the lockdown. There are limits in road capacity, and this does not appear to be recognised in the way the government has spoken about the decisions people should take on how to travel.
The Government needs to rethink its messaging on using transport and put in place more measures to ensure that public transport feels safe for those who must, and need to, use it. Undoing the damage from poor communication and messaging about the transport system could take decades if it continues to undermine trust. It is putting the viability of a network that connects tens of millions to their jobs and is a key element of driving economic growth, at risk.