The way we travel is changing, accelerated by the pandemic. What are the statistics telling us and what does this mean for cities?

Change is happening in London

Many articles have been written about the future of mobility, post pandemic. Themes include:

  • The nature and rationale of work has changed. For some this is marginal and others substantial. For many it is welcome and others a difficult transition. Nevertheless, it has happened and the situation will continue to evolve. There will be no return to ‘normal’ – whatever that was! Changes to work behaviour fundamentally alter the nature of travel and the use of the transport system.
  • Hygiene, cleanliness, personal space and environment will continue to have a large impact on how people choose and perceive their travel choices. People will still consider using crowded services, but this wider context will be in the minds of users – and importantly non-users.
  • When faced with ‘travel stress’ – industrial action, which unfortunately has become endemic in the UK in 2022 and will continue in 2023, extreme weather, renewed health scares, fuel price spikes, or even very pleasant weather many will simply choose not to travel and will be perfectly able and comfortable to continue with work, social interaction, shopping, leisure, education, etc, without the need for the transport system. The system has lost its monopoly on mobility!
  • Digitisation needs to be at the centre of mobility thinking and all innovation. Technology solutions should, however, not be used to divert the focus from a strong delivery based service culture in transport.

Our industry needs to scale compelling and effective mobility solutions to meet the increasing challenges of climate change and sustainability across society.

Many of these changes continue to emerge, and will do for many years to come. They will also be impacted by further societal changes such as fuel prices and the aggressiveness of the response to climate change

Many of these changes continue to emerge, and will do for many years to come. They will also be impacted by further societal changes such as fuel prices and the aggressiveness of the response to climate change. But, they are very real and pervasive. It should also be noted, that as a resident of London, one can see that these changes in behaviour are not being universally delivered. I note more change in my home city than behaviour in other markets in Europe and that London seems more similar to the that seen in New York City.

What are the statistics telling us?

Evidence of changes in (public) transport demand continues to emerge and the statistics evolve as the market realigns to the new normal. Also, some ‘private’ operators are often less forthcoming in releasing statistics in a changing, and competitive, market.

UK road traffic remains below pre-pandemic levels, in aggregate. This may surprise many who have seen sharp increases in traffic since the days of empty roads in 2020 as well as the subsequent impact of traffic calming measures.

Road traffic is 12% lower (to September 2022) than before the pandemic in the UK. This is particularly for car traffic. Lorry and van as well as cycling traffic is up versus before the pandemic which likely relates to the increased use of home deliveries as well as the general increase in the popularity and support for (shared and personal) micro-mobility solutions.

Rail demand in the UK in the year to June 2022 has approximately doubled from the depths of the pandemic in 2021. This demand is approximately 60% of early 2020 figures. There are some differences in urban markets, near city markets and intercity rail travel. The previous rail market has not, however, returned in its entirety in the UK. Anecdotally, weekend demand continues to be more robust that weekday demand.

In terms of bus demand, Department for Transport statistics indicate that English bus journey demand is down versus pre-Covid by approximately 30%, with a smaller decline in London. (June 2022). There is however, a long term decline in bus journeys outside of London in England that predates the pandemic effect.

As always, the situation in London is slightly different due to the scale of the market and demand as well as the abilities of Transport for London to respond to these challenges in its unique business environment.

Patronage on TfL networks was approximately 80% of pre-pandemic levels in the autumn of 2022 across the weekly average. Weekend demand on the Tube and bus networks is very near pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, there has been a sharp increase in cycling and walking in London over the course of the pandemic and this continues. Cycling is up to 40% higher than before the pandemic. This mirrors changes seen in many markets around the world and lays out the challenge to government authorities to provide the on-street infrastructure to support the growth in interest and use of micro-mobility, particularly versus offering (more) space to car drivers.

The context in other global markets is also illustrative of some of the challenges in the mobility industry. Trends vary widely in some regions of the world and in Asia in particular.

A number of European public transport markets have been impacted by national free or significantly discounted rail/public transport ticket schemes – such as in Germany and Spain. These reduced fares have significantly spurred public transport demand. The rationale for these schemes is typically associated with the climate change benefits of encouraging public transport as well as a means to address the ongoing “cost of living” crisis. Travel behaviour continues to adjust to post-pandemic realities but, these schemes have attempted to embed high levels of public transport use in this new reality. A related set of issues for rail operators, particularly in Germany, has been to rapidly increase capacity and network robustness to deal with this increased demand.

While some European cities seem to be near a full return to overall public transport demand, many seem 10 to 15% off the earlier levels with much of the impact in the daily peaks

While some European cities seem to be near a full return to overall public transport demand, many seem 10 to 15% off the earlier levels with much of the impact in the daily peaks. Weekends, however, seem to have robust, if not increased, demand versus before the pandemic.
It is interesting to also look at some statistics from certain markets in the USA, particularly regarding its reference to London and the office based work culture in the UK and USA.

The current situations vary from slow demand recoveries in the San Francisco Bay area of California, where there has been a widespread embracing of home working alongside a public transport system that had a strong commuter focussed network which moved large numbers of people to central San Francisco. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has seen a robust recovery in demand from its more multi-centric public transport system.

New York City has seen a steady recovery in public transport demand, but not to pre-pandemic commuting levels. NYC’s subway and buses were averaging 65% of demand at the start of December 2022, while the regional rail system is at approximately 70%. Public transport demand versus pre-Covid is again typically higher on weekends. It is noted that NYC’s bridges and tunnels are now operating at 100% of pre-pandemic levels.

The situation for many smaller US cities, where public transport use has always been a minor mobility option, has been difficult as they have seen an increase in this option becoming even more sidelined. It is noted that this is leading to several smaller US cities adopting “free of charge” public transport!

What does this mean for cities?

The harsh reality is that the public transport market has become a more difficult and complicated environment. And the market is probably less financially robust. However, the public will to invest in public transport still seems to be strong, at present.

Customers/consumers/travellers have more mobility options and probably want even more. They also demand, as in most other markets, increasing service quality, consistency and information across the consumer experience. However, the most lucrative part of the market – the peak – has been weakened! Travellers throughout the day are a much more heterogeneous group with many different and subtly evolving needs and decision points. This requires an even stronger customer focus from our industry.

The expectation of ‘getting back to normal’ is ill-judged and shortsighted. New opportunities, challenges and expectations exist

The expectation of ‘getting back to normal’ is ill-judged and shortsighted. New opportunities, challenges and expectations exist.

Public and stakeholder support for public and sustainable transport investment seems to continue to remain strong in most markets in the UK as well as in Europe and globally. In fact, in many cities globally public transport investment in order to remake the offer has never been higher.

As an industry commentator, however, I suggest that the most compelling UK issue in public transport, including shared and private micro-mobility, is service quality and consistency. This is in order to ensure public and stakeholder support for radically improved intra-urban transport solutions in the regional UK cities that deliver on this diverse set of transport needs and at a pan-urban scale. I don’t see this moving sufficiently quickly to deliver substantial improvements to meet the ultimate needs of climate change as well as customer expectations.

Without these radically improved regional and intra-urban service offers, the current pervasive goodwill to support sustainable transport offers may/ will dissipate over time. We then risk reverting to solutions that focus on attempting to make private, albeit somewhat greener, mobility solutions attempt to deliver our transport needs. While this may somewhat work in some cases, it will ultimately not deliver the truly radical, impressive and sustainable transport solutions we could offer, and certainly which are being delivered in many other global cities!


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 alongside further coverage in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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