Local Transport Today is the authoritative, independent journal for transport decision makers. Analysis, Comment & News on Transport Policy, Planning, Finance and Delivery since 1989.

Reading the runes

26 June 2020

More than three months since the country entered lockdown, Covid-19 continues to dominate the transport agenda. The Government’s daily graphs of travel demand appear to have stopped; a pity, because the visual collapse in demand was staggering and it would be equally interesting to track the recovery. Hopefully the Department for Transport will see fit to publish occasional updates, ahead of the official statistics that re-tell the whole pandemic.  

It is way too early to understand the long-term impacts of the virus on the transport system and travel patterns. But the story has moved on a little and there are a few jigsaw pieces that can be put on the table. Transport for London’s review of office requirements will be being repeated in boardrooms across the land. Even organisations that choose not to exit their leases may organise themselves differently: more hot desks and fewer staff commuting every day. The implications for public transport operations are potentially huge. So too for car park operators and road network managers. And for promoters of major urban public transport capacity projects.

TfL also envisages a shift in economic activity, away from central London and into local neighbourhoods. Such trends are likely to be repeated elsewhere. Does this not suggest a boon for active travel and shared transport?   

For a few issues now, these pages have told the sorry tale of local government finances. It’s not a strictly transport story yet, but it will set the scene for transport activity (or the lack of) in the years to come. Transport for London’s programme of capital works for streets seems decimated this year and the high profile Streetspace for London cannot cover that up. This might serve as a spur for TfL’s continuing work on new forms of road charging. 

Austerity was the word of the last recession but, for now, central government refuses to utter the word. But what of local government? Capital grants may continue flow down as part of the economic recovery programme. But in the absence of further government support, the revenue budgets of many councils look shot. Budgets for staffing, tendered services, studies, and transport levies will all be facing scrutiny. How many would want to take on the risk of a franchised bus network, even if the logic of doing so is stronger now than before? A fresh discussion about what local government does, and how it is funded and structured, looks inevitable.

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