The transport sector will have to find new ways of working in a post-Covid-19 world

Covid will place significantly new expectations on how “clean” public transport services should be

The world has, in a few weeks, entered an existence that many thought couldn’t possibly occur. It is the world of science fiction where an invisible virus has immediately changed behaviour across the much of the planet. Rich or poor, developed or emerging economies, north or south – we have all had to adapt and the scale of the statistics are remarkable and terrifying. In early April approximately one-third of the global population is in a form of “lockdown”. Those who have tried to state that this crisis is not relevant to their society have had to relent quite quickly to the reality of medical science. Governments have had to “do what is necessary” to change behaviour and simply ignore earlier economic processes and models.

In many ways, this is a hugely important moment for humanity. The Covid crisis has undermined many of the tenants of the globalised modern world and as well as access to local and regional services, but it has also brought us together as a collective community.

Many industries will emerge from this crisis in an unrecognisable form. This includes: retail, which in the UK was already dealing with an extensive series of business disruptions; entertainment in terms of the rapid increase in at home and web-based options, as well as future concerns about being in crowded public spaces following the pandemic; and of course transport.

Demand for transport has simply been made to collapse in order to supress transmission of the virus as a result of human to human contact. The evidence, so far, indicates that this has been necessary and effective as a means of containing the disease. But transport is a derived demand based on the myriad of decisions made by people across society – for work, socialisation, personal appointments and simply enjoyment. We have had to supress all of these mobility needs during the Covid crisis.

In particular, for many, we have redefined the need to travel to work.

The crisis has highlighted that while many have been able to work from home, many cannot. It is clear many services are required in a crisis and still need workers to travel in order to deliver services, such as medical services, carers, sanitation workers, critical infrastructure maintainers, etc. Many roles in the economy are simply not home-based in their design – dentists, social care, retail workers, construction, etc. Some of these services have been able to be suspended during the lockdown, but at significant impact in the longer term to service users. Remarkably, others have rapidly and radically redesigned their service model to capture the reality of the lockdown situation.

The crisis has placed in sharp contrast the assumptions of the need to travel to work. This has been a gradual trend for many years, but Covid has redefined the need and timescale. For many businesses, it was a choice between immediate closure and extremely rapid adaption. Concerns about choices of business software, management oversight, corporate culture and cohesiveness, or even domestic health and safety regarding desk space simply had to be dealt with practically and in a few days. Industry has had to adapt to survive the immediate impact of the lockdown as well as its longer term impacts. Examples and ideas from business have been inspirational – from changing b2b businesses dependent on, now closed retailers, to b2c; cohort-based work shifts to minimise transmission risks; to adoption of online video from university education to dance classes. Home video studios have been created and household rules agreed to enable multiple people to work, be educated and meet social needs.

For many this was a reasonable change and evolution to household life. But for others, particularly younger people, this is an extremely painful transition and many home spaces simply were never considered with the needs of long term working at home. This has no doubt caused tremendous personal hardship around the world. The impacts of this social disruption will only begin to be seen in the coming months.

There will be some relaxations of the current intense lockdowns in the coming weeks as the effect of these policies decrease the spread of the virus and provide confidence to public health officials that Covid can be contained. The rate of relaxation will be gradual, as we are already seeing in China, and Covid will still be with us and have to be monitored and contained for weeks, if not months, to come. Human behaviour and attitudes will have adjusted and fundamentally changed in this period and this will include attitudes to work as well as travel to work.

This is the large scale disruption, already seen in many industries in the information age … It will now be the transport industry that will have to rapidly redefine its role in the “new” world

This is the large scale disruption, already seen in many industries in the information age – from journalism, to online shopping, to social networks, to the role of cash. It will now be the transport industry that will have to rapidly redefine its role in the “new” world.

As I written before, we are not going to enter a new world where we all stay at home in our pyjamas for weeks at a time. Humans are social beings and for many this is an inherent part of being a human. These interactions will return. Business needs will also require many meetings and personal interactions and we should welcome this.

However, we will be sensitive to proximity to others, personal health and hygiene of those we interact with, and the spaces in which we congregate and how and when we do congregate. There will also inevitably be government imposed controls on public assembly.

Transport, and public transport, will need to operate in this new behavioural and public health context.

The world has been moving to more of an urban-based society for many decades. Humanity is and will remain focussed on living in increasingly large cities. Currently, 55% of the global population lives in cities and according to United Nations’ forecasts this is expected to increase to 68% by 2050.

These trends exist for many reasons and are not easily reversed, even if we wanted to. Sustainability and climate change are still relevant issues and will also have to be addressed as these issues will potentially generate comparable societal disruption. Mass suburbanisation and sprawl have already been proven to not be a long term, sustainable, solution to human habitation.

Cities are locations of wealth creation, social interaction, and business activity and will survive, but changes will occur including reconsideration of the design of residential spaces to make them more suitable for remote working. Local communities within larger cities will probably become more of a focus for activity. The unwell in society will likely be expected to immediately self-isolate.

The Covid crisis is perhaps a significant opportunity to reconsider the rate of transformation of our public streets in order to make them more flexible and safer for a range of users

A consequence of lockdowns has been the substantial declines in road traffic. While much of this decline is untenable in terms of providing business services and when lockdowns ease many will return to driving to work – if not potentially more will choose to drive to self-isolate. However, the empty streets have been very attractive to pedestrians, cyclists and other users of micro-mobility. The improvement in local air quality and reductions in noise as result of the traffic reductions are also highly attractive. The Covid crisis is perhaps a significant opportunity to reconsider the rate of transformation of our public streets in order to make them more flexible and safer for a range of users.

Transport systems designed primarily as a tidal flow service to move people in and out of centralised areas at peak periods will struggle to be relevant in a world where more people work remotely for all or much of the day and where people are concerned about crowding in public transport spaces. The most acute aspect of this trend in a post-Covid world will be for businesses struggling in a pending recessionary economic climate. Cost savings for many businesses will be an immediate issue of survival. Terminating or reducing expensive centralised real estate costs will be an attractive measure for implementing these cost savings.

While cities are growing and more capacity is needed in many cities, the attitudes of travellers to crowds and crowding, the needs for tidal flow capacity and desire for personal space will have shifted.

Attitudes to public cleanliness will also have altered. Public spaces have always been symbolic of local attitudes to design, tidiness, cleanliness and behaviour. Public transport is also often treated as an extension of the general rules of public space. Operators can struggle to maintain their own views of how their transport space should be managed. However, Covid will place significantly new expectations on how “clean” public transport services should be. Clearly, no one can see a virus with their own eyes. An old crisp packet on a seat does not mean that the handrail has or has not been disinfected overnight. But, general litter and collected dust in corners will symbolise to many that this is a space that poses a health risk and its use should be minimised. The perceptual challenge to the public transport industry will have never been more intense on cleanliness and this will also apply to all shared transport services.

I’ve written previously about trends for 2020. While I do not have a crystal ball, I did mention the trend to work at home or locally and fundamental changes in travel needs and the resulting commuting. And, a resulting shift towards personalised, sustainable travel modes such as walking, cycling, and micro-mobility which more closely meets the needs of localised mobility. The Covid crisis is a personal tragedy for many people. It has challenged much of the thinking, technology and practices of the modern world. It is led to a crisis for the world of transport and has generated our own moment of “critical disruption” in how we consider the future of our industry.

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