Changes in how, where and when many of us work will challenge the assumptions upon which mobility for society is designed

Will Tube patronage ever fully recover?

As the world grapples with lockdowns, economic disruption and public health challenges there is a longing desire to return to a ‘normal’. But what does a return to normal actually look like? These are issues playing out in cities across the globe. There is not a single trajectory to the post-Covid situation and countries are having different experiences. Covid has also accelerated or disrupted existing trends in certain societies that were already changing behaviour, such as home shopping, relative declines in high street shopping, growth of urban cores, increasing interest in micro-mobility, etc. Of course, the limited amount of national and international travel is making city comparisons of behaviour much harder to make in this new world!

In the UK, a range of outcomes seems to be developing across the country, separated by your level of urbanity.

If you live a rural, small town or mainly suburban lifestyle, the immediate impacts may seem somewhat limited. Mobility is provided by personal cars, personal interaction is limited to smaller shops and social scenes and work may have already been in smaller offices, factories or commuting to a larger city. If your work has transferred to home in this setting, this has reinforced the rural or suburban local lifestyle. Otherwise, you may have continued to work in a larger centre, but your travel may have ceased via any public transport options. Shopping trips may have been suppressed, concentrated into a limited number of trips and some moved to online. Meanwhile, you consider a return to the previous ‘normal’.

However, the situation is quite different if you are focussed on a large city, and particularly London. Of the six million jobs in Greater London, 40% are concentrated in the central area and this is 7% of all of the UK’s employment. Furthermore there are 30 million domestic and overseas visitors to London each year – most staying in or passing through central London. For most of this activity personal car use is minimal versus the two-thirds of the rest of UK workers who typically drive to work.

Thus, suppressed mobility, reductions in public transport use, and the uncoupling of the previous social interactivity as a result of the pandemic has created a series of cascading crises in the operation of London, let alone other large UK cities.

Urban office workers, not only create (public) transport demand – but a series of services that enable their office lifestyle, including meeting/event spaces, restaurants/eateries, retail adjacent to office clusters, cinemas/theatres/bars and more restaurants for after work leisure. Also, the leisure and events businesses draw in many thousands of people daily into the largest city centres which further support the above mentioned services.

So, much is changing, while many basic human needs for socialisation, entertainment, community and exchange continue. How many ways have you personally had to adapt over the last six months?

So, much is changing, while many basic human needs for socialisation, entertainment, community and exchange continue. How many ways have you personally had to adapt over the last six months? And, critically, how many of these behaviours will you incorporate into your future daily structures?

Some key trends are apparent. The ability and practicality to work while being “remote” from the office is rapidly developing. This isn’t ideal for everyone who can work remotely – and many cannot, but it also isn’t necessarily a perpetual disaster for many and it has a number of apparent benefits – and these, I would argue, are increasing as people adjust.

Heading to offices for many workers was common pre-Covid, but also had many inherent downsides for many workers. These included distance from childcare, inflexibility to manage household and personal appointments, lack of engagement with local communities and simply lack of productivity during travel time. But, these issues were often suppressed in the “gradualist” approach to the expansion of remote working prior to the crisis.

A discussion with your neighbours, friends and colleagues will inevitably elicit this mix of positives and negatives to remote working.

More importantly, and I would argue more critically in the coming months, is the strained state of the economy and the need for many businesses to contain or reduce costs to survive the next few months. An obvious means of reducing costs is to reduce office space and free up this financial capital for other uses. This will immediately stimulate business to encourage remote working. This is also reinforced by the feasibility and complexity of social distancing in an office situation. The costs of spacing people at desks, in common areas, and in access and egress will make the economics of offices dubious for many organisations. Public health and economics are reinforcing each other in these outcomes.

Working from home may also evolve into working more broadly “remotely”. That is, at dispersed office locations which may be permanently owned by an employer, or shared office spaces, or even public and semi-public places such as libraries, clubs and cafes. All of these locations use technology to offer the worker connectivity as well as varying elements of privacy, socialisation, stimulation and variety depending on needs and personal preference. But, all reduce the need for centralised commutes.

Thus, the central office will become the exception – the two days a week, for the team meeting, the place for the key client presentation, for use of the lab or other special equipment, to maintain contact with your manager for a face-to-face meeting, the convenient opportunity to be included as part of an otherwise scheduled trip to the central area. We must also consider that travel in the UK was always an expensive choice via relatively high public transport fares as well as petrol prices. This has, ironically, already been pushing us towards the opportunities of working remotely.

Over the last few weeks we are seeing announcements from a range of large businesses announcing extended remote working directives or downsizing office estates. These include NatWest, Siemens, the major tech players – Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter – as well as Transport for London. These large employer announcements are symbolic of a much more widespread trend.

For those who are able, working remotely creates a completely different set of travel choices. Again, these choices are highly dependent on your lifestage and lifestyle in terms of mobility.

In a suburban or semi-rural lifestyle that is enabled via the personal use of a car, public transport trips and use of long haul rail services for longer commutes become less frequently used. These services may still be essential for those key trips to central locations for the reasons outlined above, but not nearly as often. Local trips may be made to local town centres and out of town suburban locations and these may be well suited to the car.

The intervention of a strong national cycling policy and a re-imagination of the need and role for suburban and rural buses may also play a role in mobility, but local public transport faces immediate issues of perceptions of the lack of hygiene – which may be wholly inappropriate in reality!

In more urban locations where car use and expectations of car use are much lower, there is a great opportunity to re-imagine sustainable transport as well as a series of operating challenges. Clearly, mass adoption of car use is not practical, feasible or desirable in these locations. There simply isn’t road space, parking space or public acceptability of the environmental outcomes. It is critical for the future of mobility and sustainability to restrain car travel to maintain and increase space for local public transport, micro-mobility – both shared and personal – as well as deliveries in these urban areas. Road space is an immediate issue due to increasing cycling as well as growth in deliveries as a result of people being at home and avoiding going to physical stores.

Confidence in urban public transport and particularly buses, but also modes such as light rail, must be rebuilt with real interventions that address public concerns and prevent the perceived need for these urban residents to adopt an unsustainable car-based lifestyle – or simply to move to outer suburbs or rural areas to be able to adopt this lifestyle.

In both of the above user cases travel will likely become much more multi-centred, multi-directional, spread throughout the day and across modes. This is positive and exciting and offers real opportunities for improved data-led services, open data, Mobility as a Service, improved integrated ticketing and less focus on simply building tidal peak transport capacity.

Many new services to support local remote working will also be generated and supported. This may potentially, and selectively, reinvigorate the desperate situation on many local UK high streets. Much of this thinking has already been underway for a number of years, but the need is greater as a result of an increased dispersal of the work day. This will inevitably place downward demand pressure on the tidal peak commute. How large these figures will be and how other previously displaced demand may react remains to be seen.

As indicated at the start of this article and in conclusion, transport and the distribution and concentration of people in cities enables so much more than the completion of the day’s work. It enables conferences, meetings, entertainment and leisure clusters, shopping, public events, stimulates the desires for tourism, and social cohesion and belonging. The changes in the way we work will impact all of these other functions of our cities and towns in a cascade of changes. Each change will then provide further impacts on the demand and nature of the transport system.

The UK – and particularly London – should expect to see a quite significant series of shifts in the need, but also the opportunity, for future mobility

The changes in how many of us work, and now work from home or remotely away from centralised offices, will fundamentally and rapidly challenge a number of assumptions of how we design mobility for society. These changes and the rate of level of impact will vary across types of urban and suburban communities and varying countries depending on the level of underlying change that was already underway in the society. Certainly, the UK – and particularly London – should expect to see a quite significant series of shifts in the need, but also the opportunity, for future mobility.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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