The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in global challenges on a scale that we have never previously encountered, straining healthcare systems, restricting travel and creating deep economic impacts, compounded by loss of life and impacts on our social and mental wellbeing.
With an overall 80-90% reduction in travel demand, traffic-free streets, difficulties in moving while maintaining social distancing and public transport operating dramatically reduced services, this has also presented fresh challenges for our transport systems.
When the time comes, the strategy out of lockdown must support both short-term recovery and the future repositioning of our society.
Coming out of lockdown provides a fresh opportunity for us to think about life after Covid-19 and to face up to the most critical issues facing this country: the pathway to net zero and tackling the deep inequalities in our society.
For the transport sector, this means creating accessibility to connect people with opportunities whilst at the same time dramatically reducing car travel to support the decarbonisation challenge.
In this first of a series of articles, we discuss the critical issues facing the transport sector and how we might respond.
We at Atkins have developed a three-phase model - Reopen, Recover and Reimagine - to frame how the transport sector should respond to this unprecedented economic shock.
Intelligent use of data, testing and learning will be critical as we transition out of lockdown. The decisions made over the next few months will shape the economy, society and the transport system for the next decade and beyond. These must be based on sound evidence on the needs of people and businesses. In the transport sector we need to understand the rapid changes taking place in the attitudes of transport users and the implications for their future travel choices.
The challenge for the transport sector is that many people are looking for a return to the old normal; traffic volumes are already starting to rise, and history shows that people are keen to get back in their cars as soon as they can
Whilst we are all in this together, the hospitality, transport and construction sectors have been badly affected with large drops in activity. The furlough scheme will be a short-term lifeline, but many businesses are running out of money. The social impacts have been uneven: many professionals have been able to move to home-working, but the impact has been most severe on lower-paid workers, specifically those in the gig economy.
There have been significant changes in the ways we live our lives: living, working and socialising from home. Skype, Zoom and Teams are now a central part of our daily language, with businesses, hobbies and friendships surviving on collaboration platforms. However, people gain nurture from human contact and we face major challenges with mental health, loneliness and isolation.
There have been significant changes in the ways that we travel, including huge reductions in global air travel and existential threats to many airline operators. The bus and rail industries have been operating with skeletal services through the crisis, and there will be major challenges in encouraging people back onto public transport in the new era of social distancing.
However, people are interacting more with their local areas: engaging with neighbours in ‘Clap for Carers’ (in the UK), buying essential supplies from local stores, walking, cycling and even children playing hopscotch on the pavement. Streets are quiet and people are asking if this could lead to cleaner, more sustainable ways of living.
The challenge for the transport sector is that many people are looking for a return to the old normal; traffic volumes are already starting to rise, and history shows that people are keen to get back in their cars as soon as they can.
The process of reopening will be based on much greater intelligence in testing and tracking the virus, with risks carefully managed until a vaccine is available, likely later in 2021.
We need to be planning now to recover our national and local economies. The evidence is showing that businesses and jobs are already suffering. In response, we are seeing organisations diversifying to survive: businesses using 3D printers to manufacture PPE, Growth Hubs providing advice to SMEs and the business community working with local government on emergency task forces.
We also need to reimagine our local economies to make them fit for the future. This means being ready to identify fresh opportunities for people losing jobs, supporting those groups at most risk from job losses, managing the effects in the worst hit regions and supporting our high streets as the hubs of our local communities. This is critical in supporting the levelling-up of the UK’s post-Covid economy, whilst planning for its rapid decarbonisation.
The transport sector is braced for major changes in how people travel. The requirement for social distancing will cause profound changes in people’s perceptions of private and public transport and their travel choices.
Local authorities must plan for operating under a new normal. Cities worldwide are introducing pop-up lanes for walking and cycling; new operating regimes are being introduced for public transport and road networks are being considered in a fresh light.
Local authorities need to work with partners, to help businesses to recover, people find new jobs and proactively plan the future of their places. In transport terms, this means:
Effective use of data to understand what has happened to travel demand during the lockdown and forecast the potential changes that could take place as we emerge into the release phase;
Repurposing of spaces where demand has changed, for example, the introduction of community activities in under-used car parks to support local high streets;
Rapid planning of measures to support safe walking and cycling in the new era of social distancing, including alternative approaches to traffic management, street closures and pop-up cycle lanes;
Bus and rail planning to enable people to reach jobs and services, with planning to manage the safe movement of people through stations and on vehicles, to rebuild confidence in public transport;
Examining the opportunities for acceleration for future mobility, including Mobility as a Service to support effective multi-modal travel choices; and
Considering the emerging ‘new normal’ in shaping strategies and early stage business cases, with scenario planning to understand the range of possible futures and steer us to the most desirable outcomes.
Most importantly, local authorities must not lose sight of the importance of decarbonising the transport system and addressing the climate emergency. 2020 has been challenging, but now is the time to take the opportunity to re-shape our transport system for a low carbon future. This is in the hands of local authorities as place-makers, for the sake of future generations.
Our follow-up articles will explain how we can learn lessons from the lockdown, intelligently use data as we move into the release and recovery phases, capitalise on the recent digital transformation, understand user perceptions and chart the course to a brighter future.
Jonathan is a senior transport strategy adviser for Atkins
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