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In recent months Covid-19 has changed the way in which we do things throughout the world. This is especially relevant for transport. When lockdown began, the focus shifted rapidly from moving citizens, to keeping a core transportation system operational so freight and essential workers could continue to move.

Statistics from the Department for Transport show that during April, use of the National Rail network fell by as much as 95% from the same time last year. Figures in London were similar, with use of the Tube as low as 5% of the previous year. By the middle of April, the number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads had fallen to an average 40% less than in February. 

The numbers are increasing as lockdown is relaxed and people return to work; the number of cars on our roads is now back at over 80% of the levels recorded at the start of February. However, use of the National Rail network is only just over 25% of what it was this time last year. Figures for the Tube are slightly higher at around 28%. So what does this mean for transport going forward?

Working differently

Many businesses have revealed their intention to ‘work differently’ in future. Twitter recently announced it will allow employees to work from home ‘forever’ if they wish. Many major companies are rethinking their staff and office strategies in response to the coronavirus pandemic and have re-evaluated space needed around the world. And it’s not just large organisations. Smaller and more traditional organisations, which have previously been against flexible working, have now proven that it can be done, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue.

Without doubt, public transport has faced considerable setbacks. The decrease in passenger numbers has led to a reduction in fare income, and social distancing measures mean further decreased revenue. Transport operators need to continue building people’s confidence to return to public transport and dissuade people from getting back into their cars.

At the moment, there is a general sense that many people want to continue working from home more and travelling less. However, psychologists predict that, as creatures of habit, people will easily fall back into the routine of travelling to work every day, once they’re able to. It will be interesting to see how passenger numbers increase from tomorrow once working from home restrictions are eased and employers can ask their team to return to the workplace. August is traditionally quieter in terms of passenger numbers because of summer holidays, so we are unlikely to see much difference until autumn.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty around the future for the transport industry, and how things will develop over the coming months. So how do we move on from here?

Switch to active travel

The government’s focus on active travel investment to encourage walking and cycling and enable the transport network to cope with social distancing has been an important policy shift in recent months. It is the continuation and acceleration of a policy trend that was already taking place since the introduction of the cycling and walking investment strategy in 2017. The announcement this week of the Government’s £2bn cycling and walking revolution, signifies a permanent shift to active travel, which is better for people’s health and the environment. 

The rise in e-mobility is also cleaner and greener. The introduction of e-scooters, which are currently part of a 12-month trial on the UK’s roads, is a great complement to the active travel measures. We should expect to see the trials become permanent and the accompanying legislation passed.

While the policy shift towards active travel and e-mobility will be welcomed by many, operators and campaigners will want to make the case for public transport investment to continue.

The green recovery

For transport policymakers, there is also an opportunity to harness some of the positives from the ‘new normal’. As the biggest emitter of carbon, transport is at the forefront of the climate crisis. More people working from home and travelling less has considerable environmental benefits. There are opportunities to integrate these positives into transport planning for the future.

This is echoed in a recent report by independent think tank, Green Alliance, which looks at the UK’s ‘green recovery’ and how best to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.  Included in the recommendations are investment in net zero infrastructure and ensuring clean air and healthy spaces. The report goes on to mention making streets safer for shorter journeys through investment in cycle routes and using public transport and electric vehicles for longer journeys.

Similarly, a coalition of charities and NGOs led by CoMoUK and Campaign for Better Transport are highlighting the importance of public, community and shared transport, together with walking and cycling in facilitating the green recovery. 

New infrastructure to aid the recovery

New transport infrastructure is also a major part of the green recovery and will enable us to build our way out of recession, creating jobs and skills, and boosting the economy.   

The Government recently announced it will bring forward £5bn of infrastructure capital investment, with a pledge to ‘build, build, build’ and do it ‘better, faster and greener’. This puts jobs and infrastructure at the heart of the recovery and puts the transport and infrastructure sectors in a great position to work with Ministers to deliver their strategic aims and shape the future.

Where next?

Transport and infrastructure are clearly at the heart of Government's plans for the green recovery from Covid-19. This provides a great opportunity for transport and infrastructure firms to align themselves with changing government priorities. 

Effective communications are key to building public confidence in new business models and ways of travel that are emerging in response to the pandemic. Now is the time for businesses to ask themselves how they can better communicate with their customers, engage their stakeholders and use their positions of influence to further inform policy.

More information

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