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Recovering public transport post-Covid lockdown

Darren Shirley's picture

With the Prime Minister's announcement on Sunday 10 May on the coming relaxation of lockdown, and the direction not to use public transport, there are risks for communities developing that could leave them disconnected.

This weekend saw a flurry of announcements around the easing of lockdown that impact on transport and, consequently, on everyone's ability to move around, once free of our homes. The first from the Transport Secretary on Saturday was undoubtedly positive. We saw what can only be described as a fundamental shift in policy that could lead to permanent improvements in transport. In a boost to walking and cycling, the Government is pumping in £2 billion from the £5 billion pot for buses and cycling announced earlier this year. They are requiring local authorities in England to immediately reallocate road space away from the car to cycling and walking. This will see temporary cycle lanes and wider pavements put in place, as well as some roads being closed to vehicle traffic, to allow social distancing to continue, and for more people to get on their bikes to commute safely to work.  This could lead to a step-change in the use of our roads for sustainable transport in London and other cities and towns. It is possible and in some areas highly likely, that these temporary measures will be able to be made permanent.

Then Sunday saw the Prime Minister announce the framework and some timings on how the lockdown will be lifted. This included a direction for those unable to work from home to get back to work but not use public transport to get there, where possible. In larger cities, however, many people do not have any other choice than to use public transport, and their journey may be too long to walk or cycle, or they may not be able to for health reasons.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, as employers call their staff back in, there is a risk that public transport capacity could be overwhelmed, and social distancing will not be possible to maintain as larger numbers of people start to travel again. Even with significant increases in the capacity of public transport that have been recently requested of operators, with social distancing measures still in place, it is highly unlikely to be able to accommodate passenger numbers on the scale needed or wanted as offices, factories and shops reopen. Most people will therefore still be unable to use public transport at this point and it should be left for those key workers who depend on it. This means that further changes beyond cycling and walking will need to be undertaken by the Government and local authorities so the roads don't become clogged with traffic and our lungs with pollution. This is going to mean greater public transport capacity, requiring financial support.

In the meantime, large employers considering reopening their workplaces would be wise to engage with their local authorities and transport operators before reopening sites with high numbers of employees. They should be ensuring that their employee commuting needs can be managed safely against the local transport capacity and circumstances. They should be ensuring that temporary cycling and walking routes serve their offices and work sites. Another option is for large employers to consider putting on their own socially distanced bus services (which can be contracted easily) to get their employees in, without having to use precious capacity on public transport for key workers or clogging up the roads with single-occupancy cars. This seems to be the only way at the moment that the current capacity on public transport can be managed, cycling and walking increased, our roads not clogged with traffic: businesses will have to take the lead.

There is a greater risk from the Government's direction this weekend though. It could result in currently immeasurable but permanent damage to the public transport system that would leave communities disconnected, and those on lower incomes, or who don't drive, unable to get to work or access shops and services. This would obviously result in further damage to the economy. People will have heard the message not to use public transport, and in all likelihood, we will see default to travelling by car rather than walking or cycling. In the longer term, this is likely to lead to new habits around travel being formed and people will become wearier about travelling on public transport if the current messaging persists. In the short term, this will clearly lead to congestion on our roads with increased air pollution. It will also undermine the viability of local transport networks and public transport that will exclude large parts of the population from being able to travel for work, worsen social exclusion in some areas, undermine local economies, and make our country a poorer place to live and travel around (when we finally can again).

What is missing from the Government at this stage is a concrete plan for the later stages of recovery on how public transport will be renewed to allow people to continue to get to work, school and leisure activities safely and sustainably and to ensure there is still a transport industry in existence after the pandemic. We can't wait much longer for this, as every day the current approach persists, the more damage will be done to our communities in the future.