Travel — back to a very different future

Has Covid-19 changed our transport patterns temporarily or permanently? As mass vaccination programmes gain momentum, factors even more pressing than the pandemic are beginning to reshape how we move from place to place. Jon Herbert reports.

On Tuesday 8 December, Britain’s first green number plates took to the road. They symbolise both the Government’s driving ambition and the huge sustainable challenges ahead.

Reforming travel to help build back better, meet the UK’s tough 2050 net-zero emissions target, and also boost this soon-to-be independent island’s green global credentials is now a core policy goal.

However, what travellers and drivers on one side, and planners and policy-makers on the other, each want has changed during the pandemic crisis. And the planners are planning to win!

For many employers and employees this means balancing personal transport preferences with climate change, practical politics, new research and technologies, plus the need for much cleaner air.

Careful what you wish for

After travelling less during the lockdown, many commuters are looking forward to going to work safely by car. This is not what an increasingly environmentally-conscious government wants.

Many employees are also planning to spend more time working remotely, which again doesn’t square with the aim of getting the full urban economy running again.

A British Council for Offices (BCO) survey of 2000 employers and employees found that 66% hope to split their time between home and workplaces. An IoD survey of 1000 directors says 75% expect more home working and 50% want to reduce their long-term workplace use.

Other factors in the mix include a 2030 fossil-fuel vehicle sales ban and the Prime Minister’s new goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2050. The Climate Change Committee in its 9 December Sixth Carbon Budget calls for a 78% reduction by 2035 by adding new travel modes, from vehicle-sharing and on-demand services, to electric micro-mobility scooters plus rural drone deliveries. The result is a recipe for a radical transport revolution.

Stepping backwards

The transport sector is the UK’s largest emission source (28%) and must play a key role in decarbonisation and meeting net-zero targets.

The AA warns the pandemic has put progress back “two decades”. The RAC says reluctance to use public transport is the highest for 18 years. Major transport investments are also under scrutiny.

As travel levels fall, the UK’s £28 billion roads programme, and rising cost of HS2 (high speed two) which was given a £98 billion construction green light in April 2020, are both under the microscope.

How we travel now

Surveys suggest that some 66% of us believe that Covid-19 accelerated changes which were already underway with work patterns now altered permanently.

As the pandemic took hold, London Underground use fell by 95%; only 4% of tube passengers and 6% of rail customers were comfortable travellers.

Active transport, such as walking and cycling, more than doubled to 10% and 20%, 25% of 18 to 44-year olds want to keep their new travel modes. Only a third expected to go back to their old ways.

The car fights back

However, compared to 2019, 65% of young drivers and 65% of London residents now see personal vehicles as essential post-pandemic. The average national figure is 57%.

Company car use has also gained rapidly in popularity, with circa 37% willing to opt for a corporate vehicle over a cash benefit; this creates new challenges for fleet business managers.

Electric vehicle (EV) sales, at 97% of new registrations, reached record levels in August 2020. Some 24% of us say EVs and hybrids (PHEVs: plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) will be our next choice.

Circa 55% of us also believe that delivery vans should be electric; 33% are willing to pay more for this.

Short-term future

Whether people will return quickly to entertainment venues, cinemas, pubs, restaurants and churches post-pandemic is not yet clear.

Driver-only car journeys may increase as people avoid travelling with others. Similarly, minicab and taxi, rail, coach and bus services could feel the pinch.

Depending on how well the pandemic is suppressed, public transport will have to provide higher levels of cleaning, more protections screens and air filters, plus less dense seating.

Many businesses have also found that their supply chains are not sufficiently robust, particularly when importing, leading to radical reviews of how they move materials and products around.

The upshot could be greater dedicated vehicle use and less public transport travel, leading to more traffic jams, accidents, delays, pollution and social contact. Economic growth could suffer.

On second thoughts

The policy-makers’ challenge is to steer drivers in new directions; new research and studies are helping to show the way.

A parliamentary inquiry, Reforming Public Transport After the Pandemic, began taking evidence in December for a radical post-Covid-19 rethink.

Committee Chair, Huw Merriman MP, has warned that “pressing the accelerator too early” could result in major transport projects that are needed or in the wrong place. Conversely, delaying big projects could have economic costs.

Meanwhile, the Future of Transport User Study, published in November, has looked at “consumer characteristics, barriers and motivations associated with the uptake of different new and emerging transport technologies”.

It identifies five key development areas.

  1. The Future of Mobility Urban Strategy

    This emphasises the importance of MaaS (Mobility as a Service). MaaS relies on digital platforms to integrate journey planning, payment and door-to-door operations via combined travel modes, from trains, trams, taxis and buses, to car-shares, bike-shares and autonomous drive-less vehicles but not private cars! (assets.publishing.service.gov.uk).

  2. Automated vehicles (AVs)

    These are “equipped with advanced driving assistance systems” and work without human interaction.

  3. Shared services

    Services that include ride pools, bike sharing and car sharing services or car clubs.

  4. Demand response transport (DRT)

    This offers shared passenger transport with flexible routes and small vehicle travel.

It also noted the role of: App-based minicab services, EVs (electric vehicles) and Electric bikes, plus other small, flexible and light innovative forms of personal transport known collectively as micro-mobility.

Research also found that convenience, cost, comfort and safety are key considerations for travellers and commuters, but that a lack of availability and awareness also influence decision-making strongly.

Pollution, clean air and Covid-19

Air quality generally has improved. The Himalayas could be seen in the distance in Northern India for the first time in a generation recently. Less romantically but more importantly perhaps, nitrogen dioxide levels on London roads fell by an average of 15% during lockdown.

A further landmark study, this time from the CBI’s economic analysis unit for the Clean Air Fund, says World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines could give the UK £1.6 billion benefits.

Some 17,000 UK deaths could be prevented, three million lost working days and £900 million in lost wages would be saved. Productivity would also improve.

UK legal air quality and pollution guidelines for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates (PM2.5) are below WHO limits, in the latter case, less than half.

ONS questioned whether air pollution increases the risk of dying from Covid-19 in England (www.ons.gov.uk) and found that 35% of deaths to the end of June involved respiratory or cardiovascular disease as pre-existing health conditions.

Covid-19-related deaths were initially more common in highly polluted areas. But the correlation fell when deaths rose and the lockdown was introduced.

As the virus spread, and fatalities became more evenly distributed, the correlation between air pollution exposure and Covid-19 mortality decreased further.