Funding, distancing and messaging – the three big recovery challenges

TfL please keep your distance

As we enter week seven of the lockdown, the challenges of preparing for a restart remain daunting. It’s hard to plan a public transport restart when at the start of the week we don’t know the phasing or the timing of any lockdown release; what the rules will be on social distancing or PPE; and whether there will be a coordinated national travel demand management exercise or not. Though by the time I write the next of these weekly blogs, it looks like the Government will have told the public, and us, more.

Boiling it right down, the three main challenges of a restart are funding, operational (mostly relating to social distancing) and what the messaging is to the public.


So, let’s look at funding first. If public transport burned through a lot of cash running near empty services during the lockdown, then recovery could be more expensive still. Why? Because during lockdown there were far fewer services than normal and lower patronage, whereas the recovery stage means the fullest service you can provide but with patronage still well down (because of social distancing and continuing restrictions on travel).

The shock to the system of the lockdown led to a retreat into a compartmentalised approach to funding of public transport by DfT, with rail getting what turned out to be a relatively generous deal (compared with what was to follow, eventually, for light rail) with government promising to cover private rail operators’ costs – plus a profit margin. This was announced on the same day as the lockdown began (23 March). Buses outside London followed on with a two stage cobbled together arrangement / workaround to accommodate the peculiarities of bus deregulation. Phase one of the bus funding deal was based on local and national government doing something that it should only be doing in the absence of any alternative – which is to pay out for a service that isn’t being provided. This was topped up with a second fund for the services that private operators are actually providing. It kind of worked because the lockdown situation is stable (with services bumping along the bottom and so is patronage). But it also rests on any overpayment being reined in by a ‘reconciliation’ process further down the track – which is bound to be cumbersome and complex (and may only ever turn out to be partial) where any overpayments are supposed to be able to be clawed back.

The funding needs of the restart period will be a different animal altogether – with demand bouncing around depending on the phasing of the lockdown and local circumstances. Try reconciling and adjusting that on a month by month basis from Whitehall. Plus, the restart is the point at which we should be moving away from the last resort of asking cash strapped local authorities to pay for things that aren’t being provided, to devolving bus funding to local transport authorities so it can be used to direct funding so that every single pound is spent to ensure that the network that is provided month by month meets the changing month by month needs of the places they serve. Given that the overwhelming majority of bus industry income is now provided by the national and local state, if the rhetoric about empowering city regions to write more of the rules of their own recovery means something, then now is the time to make the big call on bus funding the right way.

Finally, it’s hard to understand why one of the world’s greatest public transport networks (Transport for London) is still without a funding deal given that private sector rail operators got theirs on day one of the lockdown. There are now 7,000 staff furloughed at public sector TfL in the run-up to what could be the biggest challenge for public transport in the capital since the Blitz. Anyone see a pattern here? And more widely, if there is to be a coordinated approach to providing a public transport network for the nation during a phased release of lockdown, then shouldn’t there also be a coordinated approach to funding?

Social distancing

The second big challenge is operationally how do you provide a service which is as safe as it can be for both staff and passengers as numbers increase? In particular, how do you maintain social distancing? And what complementary or compensating measures do you take particularly where social distancing is difficult to guarantee? Given that COVID-19 transmission is more likely in enclosed, indoor spaces, and where people are in proximity for extended periods, then that becomes an especially difficult challenge on public transport vehicles and in stations and interchanges. In the absence of a clear steer from Government, as yet, much of our work this week is about wrestling with these conundrums and sharing potential approaches with the aim of striking the right balance between consistency, innovation and adaptation to local circumstances across the modes and across geographies.


Connected to the operational challenge is what does all this mean for the purpose and capacity of public transport in a phased release from lockdown, and how is this communicated to public transport users? At high levels of social distancing and in denser urban geographies, it won’t take long for buses and trains to be ‘full’, so will the messaging be that people should make their journey at less busy times, by other means or not at all… in effect, pushing people to active travel and cars? And what will the look and feel of buses, trams and trains be? How do you communicate the behaviours that we need passengers to adopt (as enforcement at all times is not possible) without public transport looking like a scary, crime scene? And how do we do this in a way that over time allows for a transition to the endgame where we are actively encouraging people to use public transport as much as possible again (as we were before the crisis)?

Although there are some horrible quandaries and uncertain times for public transport at present, the travails of public transport are one more reason why active travel’s time has come. Before the crisis, the promotion of active travel (and the prioritisation of people over vehicles in the urban realm) was fast moving front and centre in urban policymaking in leading cities around the world. Now the dam could really break. Because the logic is that if public transport’s capacity has been limited by social distancing and we don’t want to see the roads clogged with cars, then we need to shift more short journeys to walking and cycling ASAP. Although there is ecstasy on Twitter every time a picture is shared of some temporary coning off of road space for walking and cycling, there’s also a need, whilst moving fast, to think clearly about the best way of facilitating a mass shift to walking and cycling that is also strategic and durable. This includes how it is funded, how the temporary and rudimentary best prepares the way for the permanent and high quality, and how other legitimate calls on road capacity are accommodated (in particular, locking in capacity for now and the future for buses). There is also the role of speed limit reductions and traffic and pedestrian light phasing to play into the mix.

As we enter week seven and wrestle with these taxing challenges, now – more than ever – it is good that as the Urban Transport Group we have the mechanisms to do so as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

You can read all of Jonathan’s weekly blog posts here.

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