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Budget 2021 Special: Getting back on board post-Covid

Silviya Barrett's picture
standing woman looking out of a train window

The Government’s messaging during the pandemic to avoid public transport has instilled a fear of using bus and rail in many people, which has persisted, despite research indicating that public transport is relatively safer than many other social settings. The danger is that, without a concerted effort to attract passengers back to public transport when the time is right, the habit of driving acquired during lockdown will become the norm for many people, reversing years of efforts to encourage modal shift.

That’s why it’s crucial that the Chancellor uses next week’s Budget to set aside funds for a targeted financial incentive scheme to get people back on board when it is appropriate to do so.  This could be in the form of a 50 per cent discount on fares for a limited time (as suggested by Transport Focus), or limited free rides to encourage people to try bus and rail travel again. Whatever form it takes, the Government must invest in getting passengers back to public transport to help meet climate change targets, continue efforts to tackle lethal air pollution and reduce congestion. 

The pandemic has not only changed people’s travel habits though, it has also significantly changed the way people work and for many this change is likely to be permanent. The move towards flexible and remote working is expected to continue, and this is a good thing, reducing pressures on the transport system at peak times and vehicle miles overall - contributing towards air quality and emission gains. In fact, almost 40 per cent of people want to continue working from home at least part of the week once the pandemic is over, but it’s important for the economic health of our towns and cities that workers do return to workplaces in some form, unfortunately the current bus and rail fares system is simply not geared up to cater to part-time commuters. 

The Department for Transport has been considered flexible rail tickets for some time and has even gone as far as asking rail companies to come up with solutions to the perennial problem, but it would appear the idea has stalled. The Chancellor should use next week’s Budget to commit to introducing flexible season tickets, single leg pricing and other flexible rail fare options that better suit people’s changing travel habits as soon as possible and ideally in time for people returning to workplaces. Fares that work for different bus operators, capped bus fares, targeted concessions and multi-modal ticketing options are also needed to offer passengers good value options. Without suitable and affordable fare options many people will choose to continue working from home full time, or simply opt to drive. Neither of these outcomes are desirable for a green economic recovery.

Read our Budget 2021 submission to the Treasury in full.
Read the first in our series of Budget blogs: Keeping us on route to a sustainable transport future