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Reopen, Recover, Reimagine: lessons from lockdown

Atkins' Reopen, Recover, Reimagine series discusses the critical issues facing transport during the COVID-19 crisis. In this issue we explore valuable insights to help chart our future journey

Jonathan Foster-Clark
05 June 2020
Jonathan Foster-Clark
Jonathan Foster-Clark
There have been some positives in the lockdown period, such as reductions in car travel
There have been some positives in the lockdown period, such as reductions in car travel


In the first of our Reopen, Recover, Reimagine series, we discussed the critical issues facing transport during the COVID-19 crisis. We highlighted the importance of maintaining our focus on decarbonising the transport system and tackling the inequalities in our society as we emerge from lockdown. 

This second piece provides summarises the lessons from lockdown – valuable insights to help chart our future journey. We have all been part of an unparalleled social experiment, and like any experiment, there is an opportunity to learn – particularly from the recent changes in our travel behaviour.
By Jonathan Foster-Clark, senior transport strategy adviser, Atkins

A new form of economic shock requires a new form of economic recovery

The economists are unanimous: the lockdowns across the globe have created an economic crisis like no other. The effects of this cut across most sectors and national and global supply chains have seen significant disruption. Some sectors have been able to adapt, for example via home-working, but still face enormous challenges. A few sectors have benefited, including online services and home deliveries; though concerns about long-term capacity and the wider impact on the economy remain.

We elected the Government on an agenda of levelling-up the regions of the UK, transforming productivity and improving living standards across the whole country. The current economic shock risks derailing this agenda, with far greater impacts in the more vulnerable parts of the Midlands and North. A sharp ‘V’ shaped recovery is now unlikely, and the shock could continue with the most severe recession in a lifetime.

In response, the government must work to create an alternative form of economic recovery. A new collaborative approach is required between national, regional and local leaders to offer coherent support to re-skill the workforce, financial support for new businesses and rebalance infrastructure investment to unlock fresh growth. We will need to understand what types of travel will be critical to our economic recovery, together with the implications for how we plan the transport system. 

We all in this together but are some people being left behind? 

The deep social challenges facing this country have extenuated the impact, from a lack of a national social care strategy to poor housing conditions. People living in crowded flats in inner cities have seen disproportionate effects – both from the virus and the lockdown – compared to those with access to the outdoors. Many pupils have lost two entire months of educational progression, particularly in homes where they compete for access to a digital device, or where parents are less able to offer support. 

Our vulnerability to COVID-19 itself exposes the starkest challenges. Whilst older people are particularly vulnerable, hard questions are being raised about obesity, chronic health conditions and the impact on ethnic minorities. 

The lesson is clear: this period has shown what is possible and allowed us a taste of the benefits of reduced traffic and letting nature take back some control

We can also see the strong correlation between Coronavirus deaths and poor air quality: pollution damages people’s heart and lungs, reducing the chances of survival. We already knew that up to 36,000 deaths each year in the UK occur because of poor air quality, but Coronavirus has highlighted a stark new reality of the impact on health of pollution. The cleaner air we have all enjoyed during lockdown is not a nice to have, it is helping to reduce further deaths.?

We must recognise the vast gulf in our society, both the issues that were always there and fresh problems unmasked by the lockdown. It is our job as professionals to understand the underlying causes, including how transport affects people’s wellbeing, and to find solutions to these problems. 

Quieter and cleaner, but we still have a climate and biodiversity emergency 

There have been some positives in the lockdown period. We have liberated streets for more walking and cycling, children playing and socially distanced conversations between neighbours. Air pollution has considerably reduced, with some city centres experiencing 40% reductions in NOx emissions. 

Carbon emissions from transport fell dramatically, although we are unlikely to sustain this faltering step on our future carbon pathway as traffic returns. As we work with the Department for Transport over the next year on the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, we need to embed lessons learned in how we can reduce the need to travel and re-focus on active travel in our local communities. 

This could be the opportunity to address our biodiversity emergency. Birds and animals are exploring places that people have left behind, with goats in Llandudno, deer in London and loud birdsong just a few examples. People have become more aware of the wildlife and open spaces in their own neighbourhoods as they take exercise locally. 

The lesson is clear: this period has shown what is possible and allowed us a taste of the benefits of reduced traffic and letting nature take back some control. We need to sustain and build on these positives and must take responsibility for active environmental stewardship.

The tipping point for the digital transformation?

The potential has been around for years, but this crisis has pushed the large-scale adoption of digital technologies. Organisations have had to move to digital platforms to survive, speeding up several years of progress into a matter of weeks.

Retailers moved to 100% online shopping, food and drink outlets evolved to home delivery, and businesses embraced Teams and Zoom. We have seen a surge of internet traffic since lockdown, with ISPs enhancing download speeds and preparing for home-based activity from Video Calls to Netflix. Within Atkins, over 95% of our people are working from home, with full digital capability and the ability to meet client needs. 

Consumer behaviours have changed: there was a spike in ‘delivery’ as a keyword for internet searches at the end of March, which has continued through the lockdown period. New tech operators are entering the market, including using AI to personalise food and drink recommendations for home delivery. LGVs were already the fastest-growing class of traffic: the step-change in bringing goods and services to people (instead of people travelling for goods and services) will accelerate this trend.

There will be downsides to this digital shift, particularly for groups of people suffering from social exclusion caused by the digital divide. Should we now treat digital connectivity as an essential social need to access services and support? If we can tackle this, we can begin to question if we will need as many physical journeys: ‘connectivity’ will become more useful than travel.

Lockdown has caused profound changes in the ways we travel

The transport reports in the daily government briefings provided a rich source of data on lockdown behaviour. Road traffic and patronage on the rail, tube and bus networks fell immediately and dramatically. Car traffic dropped by up to 75%, remaining at low levels through April but creeping back as we ease restrictions. Some motorists have taken advantage, with reports of record high speeds on some roads. 

Light goods traffic initially dropped but rose more strongly as the economy adapted with more home deliveries. Heavy goods traffic fell by only around 25% as we continued to move essential supplies around the country. There was an impressive resilience to the supply chain, with supermarkets acting as the country’s ‘National Food Service’ and the logistics industry adapting swiftly to the new paradigm.

The changes for public transport have been severe. Demand for National Rail and the Tube dropped by over 90% and has remained low throughout the lockdown, with home-working and digital meetings driving this dramatic fall. Bus demand has dropped by over 80%. We are now all acutely aware of the challenges in the safe use public transport in the era of social distancing: a long journey lies ahead in recovering public transport markets, particularly in helping to control the re-emergence of traffic in our towns and cities.

The other big story has been the re-emergence of active travel. Whilst they have not captured walking and cycling in the DfT monitoring data, there is clear evidence on their popularity. There are visibly more people walking and cycling around local streets as part of their daily exercise regimes. Many new cyclists have enjoyed quieter roads but there will be fresh challenges when car traffic rises and there is more competition for road space.

The biggest ‘loser’ has been air travel, where the economic viability of many airlines is now uncertain. The government will need to make tough decisions on which airlines they will save, based on their roles in providing the connectivity needed in our globalised economy. It will also profoundly affect airports, both by the reconfiguration of airline operations and social distancing requirements as they restart operations.

The crisis has highlighted the shortcomings of assuming uninterrupted growth in travel demand. Whilst the government had flagged the potential for a global pandemic in the UK’s National Risk Register, they had not considered the implications for the transport system. We will need to be much more adept at scenario planning, both for the short-term as we reopen for business, and in the long-term as we reimagine our future society.

Emerging with blinking eyes from the Lockdown… with a sense of optimism?

Hopefully, we will all soon be emerging safely from the lockdown, but with major changes to our society and economy. We are facing challenges that we could not have imagined six months ago, and we are not yet clear on how the situation will evolve. The crisis also has underlined the weaknesses that were already there: chronic health conditions for many people, weaknesses in the economies of some of our towns and cities and failing to tackle the climate emergency. 

But with every crisis, there is an opportunity. This has pointed to alternative ways of thinking: a proactive Government response to an economic crisis, social and community activism, new ways of working and a heightened awareness of sustainability. And there has been a paradigm shift in the ways we view travel. Travel is a derived demand: our society has begun to be rewired and this will result in fundamentally different travel patterns. The time has come to reimagine how we travel and shape the future of transport.

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