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Impact of the pandemic must be ‘harnessed’ for long term benefits

28 March 2022
Greg Marsden: Shift to home working has resulted in profound changes to travel
Greg Marsden: Shift to home working has resulted in profound changes to travel


A new report monitoring two years of  detailed  changes in travel behaviour in response to the Covid 19 pandemic urges transport professionals to seize the opportunity to build on the more  sustainable patterns that have emerged.

Professor Greg Marsden has been leading a team at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds as part of the TRANSAS study, tracking longitudinal behaviour change with a five-wave panel survey of several housand members of the public, alongside two waves of more in-depth interviews. They have also conducted four waves of interviews with policy makers.

The report presents a review of the impacts, looking at both aggregate national data sets and behavioural data. “It tells a story we simply cannot afford to ignore as transport professionals,” says Marsden, who has contributed an article on the findings to LTT (visit: https://elements.lttmagazine.co.uk/ltt842c-marsden.php)

Amongst the headline changes, for just under a half of the population, the shift to home working has resulted in profound changes to travel, says Marsden. This goes far beyond the well documented falls in bus and rail use. Weekday car traffic has not returned beyond 91% of its pre-pandemic levels, he adds.

Congestion has fallen according to the study with car sales, both new and used down, and there has been a small but significant reduction in car use. When people are at home more they use the car less, and this seems to be a factor in reducing ownership from two cars to one per household, Marsden says. 

“We have not yet seen a much hypothesised flight from the city to rural living,” he adds Indeed, those working from home more are, on average, living in more accessible locations. People have shopped less frequently and when they have shopped, have moved more of this on-line. “People have also walked more. A lot more. With 58% of the population walking three times a week or more, up from 36% pre-pandemic.”

Some of the changes were, in effect, massive accelerations to trends that were already apparent, such as working and shopping remotely, says the report. 

“Almost two years on from the initial lockdown, the economy has recovered to pre-Covid-19 levels, yet across society we are still travelling less than before the pandemic.” The report, drawing on a combination of national datasets and insights from a ground-breaking longitudinal survey in 10 areas of the UK, asks what have we learnt, and where do we go next?

“The findings are clear and remarkable,” says Marsden. “We have been able to adapt significant elements of our daily travel to do what we want by travelling less. Whereas previously, most policymakers assumed that the path to economic growth had to mean travelling more, this no longer holds.”

Marsden says the headline behavioural insights as we head out of the pandemic are:

  • Car traffic is not back to pre-pandemic levels. Weekday car traffic in England stabilised around 10% below pre-pandemic levels throughout summer and autumn 2021 with falls in peak time congestion.
  • Working from home, for those who can, has played a critical part in reducing traffic levels. Even if people who have worked from home go back to travelling for half of their working week, there will still be a reduction of 16% in car commute miles
  • Car ownership has fallen. The sale of used – and, in particular, new – cars has fallen below pre-pandemic levels. There has been a significant increase in the number of households reducing from two cars to one. The pandemic did not lead to a ‘dash to the car’
  • Retail spending has been broadly stable but people have visited ‘bricks and mortar’ shops much less often. More intensive shopping and more on-line purchasing have both been a factor in this reduction 
  • Many more people have walked more often. The huge increase seen in October 2020 had been maintained well into 2021.

The  report – Less is more: Changing travel in a post-pandemic society – says because these are examples where society has been able to adapt to the changed circumstances without having to rely on more and more mobility to do so. 

“As we come out of the pandemic, there is a chance to plan differently for transport, to encourage, where possible, fewer trips, a greater blend of virtual activities and more localised and active travel. Less motorised travel can mean more and quicker progress to decarbonisation, and better wellbeing.”

The policy choices that are made in the coming months will be crucial in shaping whether we can embed the positive aspects of change and mitigate the negative, says the report. 

It identifies six areas for urgent action by the public and private sector:

  • Act now to stimulate a return to public transport
  • Actively manage the return to the office to kickstart more sustainable commuting
  • Prioritise improving pedestrian environments with the funding and attention it deserves
  • Encourage leisure cyclists to broaden their cycle use
  • Tackle the rise in light goods vehicle traffic
  • Support a shift to lower car ownership.

“We should also ask ourselves whether the fetish for long-term investments which deliver comparatively small journey time benefits for commuters and business travellers needs re-evaluating,” says Marsden.

“We have demonstrated that parts of the economy can work quite differently without relying on this.”

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