The scenario after Coronavirus will not be the same as before

 
Perhaps the traditional peak period will become history in the interests of avoiding higher fares, congestion and each other

 
I have lost count of the number of times that ‘unprecedented’ has been used recently. Lockdown has provided space to consider how to adapt to a post-virus economy and simply replicating what we did before is not going to be possible or appropriate. The crisis has highlighted how society is changing and accelerated many of the facets of daily life that influence passenger transport provision and use. Instead, the new normality will benefit from rethinking how we go about our business and adapting accordingly.

Back to a different future

The first point to note is that lockdown would be radically different without the internet and today’s electronic communications. If everyday access was restricted to a telephone only, then working from home would not be as widespread. Many people have come to terms with working from home which, while not ideal for some, has allowed new routines and new ways of communicating. Instead of going to meetings, online discussions can be managed successfully to fulfil the purpose of any physical gathering.

From this we can assume that the demand for peak travel may be less than previously but that other types of journey may be more evident

From this we can assume that the demand for peak travel may be less than previously but that other types of journey may be more evident. For example, starting the day with an hour or two working at home saves everyone time and reduces the capacity needed to address peaks which remains the scourge of many passenger transport networks. On top of this, some people who previously travelled at peak times will no longer be working so demand will be less than before. Perhaps the traditional peak period will become history in the interests of avoiding higher fares, congestion and each other.

From the company point of view, renting/leasing offices is an expensive overhead that could be reduced or eliminated which may shift the location of some economic activities and may dent the vision of some reinventing urban centres. The smarter office providers should be setting up flexible and affordable offices for multi-occupancy and not simply hoping that all their speculative available space will be consumed in a competitive market.

However, more time for individuals means that leisure trips or early morning shopping may become more popular. Careful consideration is needed though with service planners (generally middle income, middle class) overlooking the needs of many workers who need to be at a particular place at a particular time because that is how they work. If you work in a factory, warehouse, hospital or many other occupations, staying at home is not an option. Also, having a decent broadband connection is far from universal and for some is constrained by income or location.

As we know, retailing is changing radically with the demise of many well known high street shops ands eateries. Having to ration online grocery shopping to give preference to the neediest suggests that demand will probably increase. On getting to a large store, it appears that the wide choice to which some retailers aspire is secondary to the need to provide core lines that people need regularly.

It also seems that most non-food items originate from outside the UK, notably in China and the Far East. As with many aspects of modern life, it is not the availability of certain products but their distribution that is the critical factor – transport is always a fundamental consideration.

However, one benefit of recent circumstances has been to recognise that the traditional milk delivery has a place in providing basics which has been overlooked in recent years.

Changing work

On the employment front, some people will have become redundant through no fault of their own on the high street, in offices and many businesses where demand has plummeted. The government has made temporary provision for those who are unable to work but the problem of large scale unemployment has yet to bite and could be long lasting right across all areas of activity; this will need to be addressed by transport providers. Scaling down business activities is inevitable in times of recession, only to boom again in a few years. Many workers from individuals to large corporates rely on cashflow, without which any support is too little too late.

Using evidence and experience is every bit important in transport as it is in health forecasting.

An interesting reliance on modelling has been highlighted with ministers referring to it constantly, a marked change from ignoring expert advice. In the health context, modelling is regarded as effective, scientific and necessary. In the transport context, modelling can be unreliable and incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t an expert in the minutiae. We always raise warning flags with modelling because it is there to inform decisions, not to determine solutions but perhaps greater weight will be applied to them in future. Transport models usually take months and huge quantities of data to create but common sense should prevail. Using evidence and experience is every bit important in transport as it is in health forecasting.

Some new habits have emerged. Cleanliness has taken on new meanings with occupational risk being a major concern. Protecting bus drivers in particular has become a necessity after some have died from infection while at work. Deep cleaning vehicles is taking place but actually it should happen more often anyway. There is no excuse for reducing cleanliness standards to save money because usually it isn’t much anyway and passenger expectations are changing. Any passenger should be assured that they won’t catch something because the train, bus or whatever hasn’t been cleaned properly in years.

Massive benefits

The environmental benefits of national lockdown have been enormous. This is what I refer to as ‘real life modelling’ so instead of speculating about what might happen, we actually do it. The removal of the vast majority of road traffic has reduced emissions and noise to a point where the streets are less hazardous and we can hear birdsong. The slump in demand for air travel with the sudden contraction of journey options and the financial plight of some airlines prompts a re-think about aviation activity. Regional airlines such as Flybe are no longer operating which has big impacts on airports such as Southampton Airport where over 90% of flights were provided by Flybe. The lack of flights has improved the quality of life of those who live around airports and everyone else who wants to breathe fresher air both as a result of reduced plane emissions and the associated surface access to airports.

Some longstanding rules and regulations have been set aside temporarily. This includes procurement where the official way of doing things is giving way to expediency. There will not be time to go through laborious processes for the sake of procurement and instead businesses can buy in what they need directly. This removes the additional tier of process that divorces buyers from the material services they need, a notable improvement (subject to appropriate checks of course).

Now is the time to challenge any regulations that are not safety-critical. Innovation should be encouraged

For buses and other road-based activities, rules about how much notice is needed of a new or changed service or withdrawal have lost their meaning in the scramble to survive and adapt. The suggestion is that the registration period for services in inappropriate if future bus services are to be truly responsive to changing activities. Now is the time to challenge any regulations that are not safety-critical. Innovation should be encouraged such as using buses and drivers that would otherwise be not doing very much to carry parcels, medical supplies or similar. Offering staff as a resource for parcel carriers could provide some income while meeting an immediate need. In doing so, there is hope that the role of bus drivers is recognised more widely.

Those businesses that survive will be facing an uncertain future and some individuals’ talents and expectations will have been changed profoundly. When the new normal arrives, it will take a long time for society to settle down. The biggest disaster of all will be if we have learned nothing from the Coronavirus experience because it could happen all over again. Even if we can recreate some of what went before, we have the spectre of achieving Brexit just around the corner at a time when separating our economy from its biggest market does not look promising. Post-Covid-19 will be a bumpy ride..

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

 
FURTHER CORONAVIRUS COMMENT:

Sharon Hedges: Looking out from the lockdown

Claire Haigh: Decarbonising transport after Covid-19

Giles Bailey: Transport world faces ‘critical disruption’

Great Minster Grumbles: Bus industry bailout raises questions

Great Minster Grumbles: Will office culture be a thing of the past?

 
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