In the media

A time to reimagine the future of transport

By Charlie Henderson

Highways UK

22 May 2020

Governments have started to make the first tentative steps in relaxing the Covid-19 lock-down, trying to kick-start economies and getting society “back to normal” in a safe, controlled manner.

This article first appeared in Highways UK

For the roads sector, this poses significant challenge – how to move large numbers of people safely using infrastructure that is ordinarily congested and operating at capacity. The immediate main challenge will be for transport operators and how they ensure social-distancing for both their customers and staff – this seems almost impossible to do without impacting on capacity – and hence commercial viability – of services.

The sector, including highways authorities, also needs to respond to longer-term consequences of Covid-19 and how it impacts on road use. These are more complex and relate to multiple, inter-related factors.

From an individual perspective, surveys are already highlighting strong statements of intended behavioural change. For example, Transport Focus’s recent survey set out significant changes in attitude which could see reduced use of public transport and increased traffic on our roads from cars, cyclists and pedestrians. For instance;

  • 62% said they wouldn’t be using public transport unless social distancing is in place
  • 60% said they would drive more rather than use public transport
  • 51% said they would cycle and walk more rather than use public transport.

There have also been a number of surveys which demonstrate wider reflection by the public during lock-down about the sort of world people want to live in, their priorities and how they may change behaviours (including how they travel). For example, an Ipsos poll found that 66% of adults in the UK saw, in the long term, climate change as serious a crisis as Covid-19 and suggests increased support for government actions to prioritise climate change as part of ‘Covid recovery’. These are, of course, notional rather than actual behaviour change, but they do highlight the greatest single potential change in modern times in how people intend to use transport.

Covid-19 and lock-down has had and will continue to have significant and varied impact on organisations. For those organisations that require physical interaction with people and machinery the impact has been greatest. In the short-term many have had to cease or wind-down operations. In the longer term there may be a variety of responses, including a push to do more remotely, electronically or autonomously, have greater social-distancing and set in place more physical barriers to protect staff and customers.

Road building and maintenance is an example of such challenges – in the short-term we have seen the introduction of PPE and greater social-distancing; in the longer-term we might see greater off-site preparation and manufacture to reduce time and risk on-site.

For those organisations where physical interaction is not vital, the immediate impact has been less severe but the long-term impacts may still be significant. For example, many companies who have largely office-based staff have implemented remote working successfully and now realise that many of the perceived disadvantages can be minimised or overcome – for example video-conferencing can work from home and many staff don’t mind home-working. And in the longer term there could be significant benefits – a more flexible workforce, staff travel time is reduced, office costs can be reduced and greater resilience (including against infectious disease). Home working for many companies could become a sensible part of an estate strategy.

This could affect a significant number of people – a YouGov profile analysis suggests that 40% of workers think they could do their job from home. The impact of these changes will be varied on the roads sector, potentially including:

  • Less road commuter traffic (as more people work from home)
  • Less demand for city centre locations (which tend to be more costly and have less parking)
  • More for out of town locations (cheaper, less reliant on public transport)

As we leave lock-down there are real challenges for transport operators – how can mass transport be provided that supports social distancing (and safety for customers and staff alike)? At present there does not appear to be an easy answer — even with public transport reverting to full services once you take into account social distancing the effective capacity would be 10% on many parts of the network. This reduction in available capacity will encourage change – when people travel (spreading peak demand), how people travel (shifting to alternative modes such as driving, walking or cycling), or not to travel at all (for example working from home).

However for many individuals, and often those who are least able and most deprived, change may not be possible. Highways authorities may see greater road use – it is likely that in some areas we see a greater volume of pedestrians and cycles, though how sustainable this is given the UK’s weather is debateable. In this context the role of the highways authority is likely to develop from one of providing open access to their road network to one where they are more closely involved in managing limited capacity to support wider economic and biosecurity considerations.

From a national & local government perspective, we are likely to see a range of longer-term policy changes and approaches to support social distancing (both on transport and the wider environment) and reduce risks associated with the spread of infectious diseases. For example, we are already seeing encouragement to stagger working start times (spreading peak travel times over a longer period) and the intention to have greater restrictions on city centre access (to support social distancing and create a bike-friendly environment).

In recent years the automotive sector has been developing and promoting two new technologies, namely alternative fuels (to petrol and diesel) and autonomous vehicles. While both have been hailed as game-changers for the sector and how we use our road network, it is fair to say both were at their early-stage adoption. There will be continued interest in alternative fuels, not least because there is evidence to suggest links between high air pollution and greater risk of death from Covid-19. It is not clear that interest in autonomous vehicles will be as strong – while some argue the absence of a driver creates less bio-security risk, owning your own vehicle (rather than sharing, as proposed for autonomous vehicles) is safer still.

The challenge for those in the roads sector is understanding the consequences of how these elements come together in the short, medium and long term across modes, geographies, business and individuals to create the new normal for the roads sector. The uncertainty is significant and invariably will lead to some paralysis in decision-making – “we don’t know enough before we make a decision” and “we need to do more modelling”. This procrastination will not help drive economic and societal recovery.

A reset button has been hit. And, in the space created by this crisis, transport leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to look beyond responding to the here and now, and to reimagine the future of transport, which is covered in this PA Consulting report.

The nature of this change will be complex and there will not be a single solution – not everyone can work from home and not everyone can cycle, drive or walk to work. The changes we make to our road and indeed our wider transport networks must reflect the full range of needs and be shaped by the needs of the user (whether a driver, cyclist, pedestrian or public transport user).

For some, this may involve the rapid adoption of new approaches (eg micro-mobility), whereas for others it might be less radical and more practical (eg effective use of ‘shields’ and signage to help enforce social distance on public transport). However, the roads sector must move at pace to use transport as a means to help, rather than stifle, recovery. And the ambition needs to be more than “let’s get things back to how they were”. It needs to be “how can we use these unprecedented circumstances to develop a better future for us all”. To do this will need vision, agility and leadership.

Charlie Henderson is a global roads expert at PA Consulting

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