Post-Covid transport perspectives

Joao Silva
Covid-19 dramatically changed people’s transport behaviours, with huge reduction in aviation and public transport use, and growth in cycling and walking. There are challenging times ahead, as the transport sector aims to recover and re-orientate.

Behavioural change in choice of transport mode has been an unintended consequence of Covid-19. The government’s policy document, Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, launched on 4th March 2020, was the Department for Transport’s first step to developing the policy proposals and a coordinated plan for decarbonising transport. The next three months and their aftermath had not been predicted.

A changed transport market?

During lockdown, traffic congestion disappeared, resulting in better air quality, improved urban environments and considerably reduced carbon emissions—all good, until we consider the impact on the economy, the struggle experienced by local businesses, and the effect on human connection.

Global airline passenger capacity fell by 91 per cent in April, and Network Rail reported footfall decreased by an average of 93 per cent at some of London’s busiest stations. Meanwhile, bicycle sales soared.

Since lockdown easing, physical distancing continues to affect the public transport network, paving the way for a potential shift to car use, for those with access to one. Already traffic in the London congestion charge area has soared, due to reduced capacity—and perhaps reduced appetite for—public transport.

Change to commuting and travelling patterns may stay with us, as employers, employees and transport operators figure out what is safe and what people want, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and in the longer term.

The search for solutions

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) anticipates that demand for air travel will not recover until 2023 at the earliest, and predicts that the UK aviation industry faces a loss of revenue of up to £20.1bn in 2020. Cranfield-led research suggests that a smaller, consolidated sector will emerge in the future.

Renewed demand for passenger air transport will depend on a range of factors, including perception of risk, cost, convenience, and the availability of alternative transport modes. Meanwhile, airlines and airports continue to explore options for monitoring passenger Covid risk status, practising social distancing, and minimising the need to touch shared infrastructure. On-site passenger testing for Covid-19 at the airport may become part of the solution.  

Reinvigoration of our ageing railways was already the subject of debate, and the sector now has the added pressures of Covid-19. Solutions may reside in changed usage patterns, redistributing passenger capacity for safety and better travel experience. Remote working, supported by continued investment in digital technology, could be part of this capacity-balancing solution, with workforces encouraged to adopt more flexible work patterns and locations.

The rail sector’s own digital transformation could create an improved customer experience, giving customers real-time updates on network congestion, to allow commuters to travel in less crowded vehicles and to choose less busy stations.

Private car use could rise as people seek to maintain distance or avoid public transport restrictions, potentially reversing the recent decline in vehicle ownership rates among young people and city dwellers. This could require greater investment in highways. We can expect the government and industry to increase investment in electric and autonomous vehicles, and there could be increased scope for market disruptors like car-sharing services and subscription schemes.

The Emergency Active Travel Fund provides an initial £250m government funding for authorities in England to promote active transport modes. This is the first stage of a £2bn investment and includes piloting of e-scooters in 30 local authorities. The Scottish government has announced £10m for pop-up walking and cycling routes.

Re-thinking investment strategies and business planning

Faithful+Gould is already helping clients re-prioritise their investment, in alignment with those passenger behaviours expected to return to normal and those which have changed for good. We are committed to supporting the sector, helping each transport mode make its contribution to economic recovery. 

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