Beyond the lockdown – Steering the right course for urban transport

coronavirus traffic social

As we enter week six of the lockdown, the country is now turning its attention to when and how it should begin to be released. If the lockdown period was difficult for transport authorities to respond to – then the start-up could be harder still.

We don’t know when the phasing out of the lockdown will occur for different journey purposes and demographics, and without knowing this it’s hard to match service levels to potential demand. We also don’t know to what extent we are going to be involved in the Government’s decision-making processes and thus how achievable what we may be asked to do will be. What is certain is that at some stage we will need to meet the additional demand for public transport that release from lockdown entails, whilst continuing to ensure that staff and passengers are protected. Maintaining whatever level of social distancing is required will be particularly challenging as more people are released from lockdown restrictions. As well as the operational challenges, there will be financial challenges too as we will need to pay for the running of public transport networks which may be operating at normal, or even enhanced service levels, but with lower patronage (and thus lower income) and higher costs (everything from higher cleaning standards to more staff to regulate access to stations and vehicles).

We therefore need clarity from Government on five things:

  • How we are going to be involved in a meaningful and strategic way in the Government’s decision-making process on the phasing of lockdown release.
  • What the strategy is through lockdown and into the recovery phase for PPE in general (and for masks in particular, in relation to both staff and passengers), testing for transport sector staff and the role and extent of social distancing.
  • A joint approach to travel demand measures (such as the staggering of working hours) so that travel demand can be managed in a way which is consistent with protecting the safety of staff and passengers.
  • Greater flexibilities for transport authorities outside London to dynamically manage public transport networks as a whole, in an agile and integrated manner, in the same way that London already can.
  • Sustainable funding arrangements to be agreed between Government and transport authorities to cover the different funding challenges of the recovery phase.

Looking beyond these immediate operational and funding challenges for public transport there are some broader, more existential and long run issues for urban transport planning that need to be grappled with.

It hurts to say it but it’s difficult to see anything but tough times ahead for public transport for quite some time as patronage is hammered by the COVID-19 crisis, and even after the crisis commuting fails to return to previous heights following on from the mass experiment in home working. Meanwhile, national and local government is providing more of the funding for public transport and more direction than it has before. In effect, for the time being, we have already transitioned to a more continental model for public transport – with higher subsidies, better integration and more national and local control. We could now do this in a more structured way, a way that is standard practice on the continent. And to give public transport a fighting chance in the recovery, perhaps we also need to be now looking at cheaper and simpler fares too? Without radical action like this, public transport could well be the big loser from COVID-19. But what of the winners? It wouldn’t be surprising if both active travel and cars were both winners – though perhaps in different places. Cheap petrol and discounted cars coupled with the desire to improve personal and family resilience could lead to king car reinforcing its dominant market share with SUVs more popular than ever – particularly in the suburbs, countryside and edgelands. Whereas the city centres and inner suburbs, which were already repurposing streets around people rather than vehicles, could accelerate faster and further. There might be an approach that works for public transport and active travel here – if we can lock in road capacity for buses and active travel in the urban cores in the short term where the appetite and opportunity is already there. Meanwhile, to head off the danger of a two nations on transport, much more policy attention needs to be given in the medium term to transport policy that addresses the harder challenges of places beyond the urban core, as well as the easier bits like city centres (easy being a relative term!).

There are some interesting climate graphs around which show how the fall in carbon emissions that have occurred as a result of COVID-19 is only what we should have been doing anyway (and will need to continue to drive down at the same rate) if we are to meet global targets for limiting global heating. So if that’s the case, the route one for transport must be to electrify the vehicle fleet (public transport and cars) from a decarbonised grid as a central facet of any wider post-COVID-19 economic renewal plan.

All of the above should also be seen as an opportunity to radically simplify the byzantine world of local transport funding into something that gives much more leeway for transport authorities to act quickly, consistently and at scale in order to drag city regions out of the aftermath of this crisis in a way which is also consistent with the climate change imperative. And if money is short, then an increasingly irrelevant and fantastically expensive national road programme looks like the obvious place to get it from.

So, a lot of our time this week will be on the daunting immediate practical, operational and financial issues to focus on around starting up again in support of a phased relaxation of lockdown. But it’s also time to start thinking big – very big – about how the long run implications of this crisis can best be shaped in support of long term economic, social and environmental goals for the city regions that our transport networks support.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

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