How will COVID-19 change our travel behaviour?

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Image of a person wearing a mask on public transport
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Transport policy has traditionally focused on changing the way people travel i.e. moving them from cars to public transport to ease congestion and improve the environment amid ever-increasing demand. But what if demand falls?

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In response, many countries have imposed a number of ‘social distancing’ measures on their citizens such as closing schools, shops, restaurants and bars, prohibiting public events and encouraging working from home. This has had an immediate impact on demand for public transport and reduced travel and transport demand generally.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how, when, even if things will return to the way they were before this pandemic. In the short term there is uncertainty about the potential for a second wave which will see a phased approach to reversing the ‘lockdown’ and even greater uncertainty about the long-term impacts of this event on travel demand and behaviour.

Working from home
The lockdown has resulted in what has been described as the ‘world’s mass homeworking experiment’ [1]. The results and long-term effect of the experiment remains to be seen but organisations, perhaps previously reluctant to facilitate remote working, have invested heavily in equipment and appear to be embracing digital technologies like zoom, whose daily users ‘ballooned to more than 200 million in March from a previous maximum total of 10 million‘, to host meetings and keep staff connected.

Commuting is currently the biggest reason we travel in NI, in terms of trips and distance. Commuters’ preference for driving, usually alone, contributes significantly towards emissions and congestion. Peak hour congestion, for example, has been estimated to cost the NI Economy more than £1 billion per year. Current transport policy focuses on  moving people from cars to public transport and to a lesser extent active travel modes, this is known as modal shift policy. But how will the morning commute look after the lockdown and how will policy makers react to this?  Already there have been calls to review the high-profile York Street Interchange road project with the suggestion being that large capital projects such as this may be unnecessary if demand for travel falls post lockdown.

Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests that in order to exit the local lockdown the UK Government may have to consider a reversal of current transport policy, encouraging commuters (those who remain of course) to drive as opposed to using public transport. The IFS suggest this can be off set with measures to encourage remote working. For those who must travel, it recommends staggering start times in order to avoid traditional peaks in demand.

Impact on public transport
Countries such as France and Spain have imposed the requirement for passengers to wear face masks and this could become the new normal everywhere. Transport operators on the other hand will enhance cleaning protocols and provide hand sanitizer at stations. The question is will this make people feel safe or simply highlight the potential dangers? One suggestion is that ultimately, all but those without alternative, could shift away from public transport. A UK-wide survey conducted by mobility specialists Systra found 20% of people will decrease their public transport use post-lockdown, this rises to over 40% in London. Concerns over getting ill (49%); increased home working (29%); or changing mode (14%) were chosen as main reasons. 67% of respondents also foresee virtual meetings replacing some or all business trips/meetings.

Public transport operators are already struggling financially due to the lockdown with use generally down by 90-95%. The loss of passenger revenue and new costs associated with frequent cleaning of vehicles and facilities prompted Britain’s bus operators to seek support of up to £1bn, eventually receiving a £397 million package from the UK Government in April. The Scottish Government will also provide bus operators with financial assistance to maintain essential services while NI’s Minister for Infrastructure has indicated the NI Executive’s commitment ‘to support and fund our public transport network’. Speaking to the press, Translink’s Chief Executive has suggested funding in excess of £100 million will be required to maintain the viability of the existing public transport network post lockdown.

Bus operators in GB have pointed to the loss of two critical passenger groups, school children and concessionary pass holders, who make up a large proportion of bus users, but due to school closures and the requirement to self-isolate, respectively, are not presently travelling. Schools will return, but whether pupils and concessionary pass holders return to public transport at pre-lockdown levels remains to be seen. Indeed, how all passenger numbers recover post lockdown will be critical to the future viability of the existing public transport networks. Loss of fare paying passengers means one of two things, either Government steps up with increased subsidies or services are cut. The emerging economic climate would suggest the former is unlikely.

Will active travel increase post lockdown?
During the lockdown several cities around the world have responded to the need to socially distance by reallocating road space, described as ‘pop-up’ infrastructure, to make it safer for people to walk and cycle for essential trips or for exercise. The Scottish Government, for example, has allocated £10 million to support pop-up walking and cycling routes across Scotland while NI’s Minister for Infrastructure has proposed introducing pop-up cycle lanes in Belfast and Derry.

There is an expectation that active travel will become more attractive post lockdown. Research by the AA suggests in London, for example, 36% of people will either walk, cycle or run more often. Indeed, Transport secretary Grant Shapps says that encouraging people to cycle to work will form a key part of the UK Government’s plans to ease England out of the lockdown.

Having recognised the benefits of this approach, the city of Milan in northern Italy is taking steps to accommodate active travel more permanently. It has announced that 35km (22 miles) of streets will be transformed over the summer, “with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as the lockdown is lifted”. It is hoped this will prevent a resurgence in car use as residents return to work looking to avoid busy public transport. With the UK Transport Secretary and NI’s Infrastructure Minister also acknowledging the role of active travel in post lockdown mobility, it will be interesting to see if this is reflected in both policy and expenditure.

As we anticipate an emergence from this unprecedented lockdown, and potentially moving more freely within society, the overwhelming question seems to be when will things get back to normal? From a mobility point of view, they may not. It will take time for trends to form but there are indications that home working, avoidance of public transport and increased active travel could become the ‘new normal’. Accommodating these changes will require a significant rethink when it comes to transport policy.


[1] Andrew Hill and Emma Jacobs, ‘How is the world’s mass homeworking experiment going?’, Financial Times, 30 March 2020