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Transport after the first Covid-wave: what customers want now and how to respond

Is this the end of travel as we once knew it? Have all our assumptions about what transport users want and how they behave been superseded by a global public health crisis? What does the new playbook look like?

Dr Felicity Heathcote-Marcz
31 July 2020
Dr Felicity Heathcote-Marcz, senior consultant, Atkins
Dr Felicity Heathcote-Marcz, senior consultant, Atkins


In the fourth article in Atkins’ “Reopen, recover, reimagine” series of articles; Felicity Heathcote-Marcz writes about the impact of the virus on our travel behaviours and looks at the wider implications for the way we travel. Felicity is a Senior Consultant in the Transportation business in Atkins and is a trained ethnographer, specialising in providing rigorous research to technical and customer/user focussed client projects.

We don’t want to go back to work - despite new government messaging that we are now safe to do so. We’re doing more shopping online, the end of the high street is nigh and shopping centres face the calamity of turning into ruins of a pre-Covid era. We don’t feel confident booking overseas travel, and if we do, we’re less likely to opt to fly...

If a second wave of the pandemic hits and lockdown returns, travel behaviours will become more chronically cautious, with many choosing to avoid unnecessary trips and use a private car if that’s not possible

This hyperbolic description of the state of the UK transport industry as we recover from the first wave of Covid-19 is, in many ways, a distortion of the nuanced, fluid and uncertain realities transport consultants, authorities and providers are trying to navigate right now. However, there is more than a grain of truth to it. 68% of those who have been working from home during the UK lockdown want to continue once the pandemic is over, and only 4% of employers have brought their employees back into offices since the easing of lockdown restrictions. These are the signs of a structural shift to work and travel patterns that will continue for the long-term and are not wholly contingent on the coronavirus going away. 

Is this the end of travel as we once knew it? Have all our assumptions about what transport users want and how they behave been superseded by a global public health crisis? What does the new playbook look like?

Businesses are already consolidating their assets and we are highly likely to see office and retail closures as many high street businesses find that they cannot survive the pandemic effect.

Office-based workers face the likelihood of home-working as the norm, with visits to office hubs in larger UK cities the occasional exception to the rule of virtual engagement with clients and colleagues; and students will be following suit, as schools and universities enact Covid teaching programmes with reduced capacity and more reliance on the remote classroom.

Consumer behaviours are also starkly changed by Covid-19. 62% of shopping is now being done online, up a whopping 20% from before the pandemic hit, and only 16% report planning to switch back to their old habits of venturing out for their retail therapy. Retail in the UK was already facing a very uncertain future, with Intu (owner of 17 UK shopping centres) recently going into administration and working through a messy insolvency process that could lead to the closure of shopping centres for example.

All these factors mean that fewer journeys are not only happening now; but that even fewer will be required in the future. 

Demand for leisure trips is more likely to recover to pre-Covid levels, as Brits begin visiting family and friends again and enjoy the reopening of restaurants and pubs (hands up who went a bit mad when those reopened?!), but long-haul travel may never return to pre-Covid levels unless business travel regenerates.

Mobile data from our Atkins-BT partnership has shown a fall in national and regional journeys with geographically spread journey origins since the pandemic hit – meaning we are driving or taking public transport for long-distance journeys far less than pre-Covid. Pre-pandemic travel peaks such as rush hours are also likely to be significantly lower compared to 2019.

All these factors mean there are some significant changes to what customers want from their journeys in a post-Covid era – or ‘after the first wave’ - at a time in 2020 where the risk of catching the virus is still a worrying reality and government and health institutions are bracing themselves for the next wave of cases when winter sets in.

These changes include a significant swing to the private car as the preferred transport mode of choice to wanting reassurance about safety as a number one priority (a big shift as safety came significantly down the list of passenger priorities in a  Mobility as a Service trial that Atkins ran with TfGM in 2018). The kinds of journeys transport users take and the centrism of the private car pose enormous challenges to transport planners and government. Radical rethinks of transport policy and passenger incentives (and other kinds of behavioural nudges) are needed to pivot in the same direction as the new Covid customer paradigm.

The current state of flux is an opportunity, but uncertainty is high and will probably remain high for months to come. Safety-centric is the new customer-centric in a Covid-era of travel – replacing reduced journey time, environmental concerns and comfort travel factors. So how can mobility providers and transport authorities best respond to these changing needs and have they shifted irrevocably? Is the era of MaaS as a transport panacea and the decline of the private car been irrevocably reversed?

We can address meeting customer needs and expectations of safety when travelling in three ways across three facets of the Covid-secure journey:

1. Introduce public safety measures, easily accessible information and behavioural interventions such as nudges to encourage passengers back onto public transport 

  • Examples might be integration of money saved, calories burned or CO2 emissions reduced from taking public transport into mobile apps when travellers are planning journeys
  • These measures should be backed-up by the latest science, information on risks and government guidelines and updated as soon as science/guidelines change. This will increase customer trust in these measures and the information that surrounds them.

2. Make it easy for transport users to follow user-friendly safety guidelines and mandatory instructions to protect oneself from a social faux pas and potential liability

  • The clearest example is mask wearing – make disposable masks available and enforce non-compliance. Also make hand sanitiser available everywhere and increase the number of restrooms available at stations (and signpost to the nearest WC/hand washing facilities at bus stops)

3. Protect customers from the expensive costs of cancellations (a significant factor currently dampening demand) with Covid-insured trips

  • This will be an important factor for many industries as well as the government and mobility providers in the months to come: if we are to restore confidence in travel. Providers should offer Covid-insured journeys, flexible booking and cancellation rights as standard and provide refunds as quickly as possible without the need for customer intervention.

Finally, DfT and local authorities need to carefully consider plans to incentivise citizens into increased levels of public transport use and disincentives to use private cars in the current climate. By providing incentives to take public transport when a car journey is available and encouraging switching between multiple transport modes that involve contact with others (e.g. bus, then train journeys), introduce multiple points of risk to journeys unnecessarily, and this is likely to remain an unattractive prospect for some time for many users. This shift in policy and planning is likely to be difficult for many local authorities, particularly as Future Transport Zones get going in earnest in several UK regions. 

It will be paramount to respond flexibly to customer needs in this unique period after the first wave of Covid-19, as these needs for safe journeys are emerging from the current political and public health situation – itself the very definition of emergent. If a second wave of the pandemic hits and lockdown returns, travel behaviours will become more chronically cautious, with many choosing to avoid unnecessary trips and use a private car if that’s not possible.

Covid-19 becomes a chronic condition that our population must learn to live with in the years to come, journeys on public transport may return to more normal levels but remain wrapped in the ‘theatre of safety’ we have come to expect through this pandemic. Transport users, particularly older demographics and those with pre-existing health conditions, will continue to value safety over other factors when travelling, and this will be a change that’s here to stay. Transport may really, never be the same again. 

However, prioritising active travel modes through behavioural interventions (incentives, disincentives and nudges) and investing in a shorter road (pardon the pun) to  electric vehicles and infrastructure on UK roads are ways that  government, at all levels, can deliver their net zero  and air quality targets, while maintaining customer safety at the heart of plans for the future.

Policy and Research Advisor, Urban Transport Group
Urban Transport Group
£34,356 per annum
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