New normal?

September has brought to an abrupt end the dreams of the summer of a linear recovery from COVID-19, where empty office blocks would spring back into strip lit life and zoned out commuters would again be grazing the shelves of Prets.

However, once more the virus has shown that it is not prepared to enter into reasonable negotiations and come to a compromise. And now as September turns the temperatures down to a level the virus prefers, its resurgence could signal the start of a new normal. Just not the new normal we were hoping for back in the summer. Instead, this could be a new normal of oscillating restrictions which fall short of the national lockdown of the Spring but which is nothing like the life we used to have pre-COVID.

For public transport, this has already meant a levelling off of the growth that was occurring and in some cases the start of a gentle dip. In many areas, this has happened just before an unstoppable force (growth in patronage) collided with an immovable object (socially distanced capacity) which for many areas alleviates what would have been a very difficult problem to solve. If public transport patronage does stay in the 40 to 50% band during this new normal, then the case for a longer term COVID-19 funding support for this period is strengthened. Because – as in the national lockdown – public transport will continue to play a key role in getting essential workers where they need to be. Whilst in addition doing more than that because unlike during the national lockdown, we will be seeing less empty vehicles as public transport continues to provide wider life support for local economies.  Again, this strengthens the case for stable rather than provisional additional COVID-19 funding support to close the revenue gap caused by the pandemic. We will soon find out if this is to be the case with Transport for London’s latest funding deadline approaching on 17 October, funding for the five LRT systems outside London and Blackpool on 26 October and with bus on the precipice of funding withdrawal being triggered at any time with eight weeks’ notice.

Face coverings are also part of our new normal – and no longer something that’s only necessary on public transport (which also helps reduce the associated stigma for public transport). Enforcement and messaging is helping to support high levels of take up in general – but the more prevalent the virus becomes, the more passengers will see those who aren’t covering up as unacceptably selfish and a threat. Face covering use can also decline as the day turns into night and in particular among peer pressured groups of young people (including school children). The situation is further complicated by the fact that anyone can also self identify as someone for whom face covering regulations don’t apply by saying that they are not required to wear one due to an unspecified disability or medical reason. Whilst there are good reasons for this, it is also clearly open to abuse.  The Government’s approach to face covering use has been to incrementally ratchet up the rhetoric and the fines. However, it’s far from clear that this will be enough to get to where we should be. Which is that there should only be three types of people using public transport – those wearing face coverings; those who are legitimately exempt; and those who aren’t wearing a face covering and as a result won’t be on public transport for very long and/or whose bank account will be diminished as a result. If that’s the end state we want, then we need to move from the incremental to something more decisive. This could include giving transport authorities more enforcement options given only the police can enforce at present (such as being able to empower additional staff to support the police on enforcement as TfL can), as well as moving beyond informal self identification of exemption status.

Free wheeling on active travel?

A feature of the Summer was active travel euphoria as leisure cycling soared, main roads into city centres were adapted with pop up cycle lanes for mass commuting, and the Government’s active travel strategy declared that Copenhagen and Amsterdam should watch out as Britain would soon be at their shoulder.  As we enter Autumn, the euphoria is wearing off as a culture war backlash rages in London and elsewhere (which has spilled over into Parliament and the Cabinet) over the pace of change. A battle between the metro and the retro, and between those who like the way their street now looks and feels and are willing to give the new a try, and those for whom the inconvenience they feel it causes is the last thing they need in their busy lives in the middle of a pandemic. Meanwhile, a hoped-for exponential growth in utility cycling, where offices remain closed, is proving challenging in many areas. Whilst Government has called on local authorities to be swift, consultative and simultaneously excellent in every way on cycling, it has, and is, also dragging its feet on getting the cheques out of the door that local government needs to fulfil these goals. As this timeline shows, the second tranche of the funding originally announced in July has still not been paid out.

Momentum is everything if the current moment isn’t to be looked back on as a false dawn for active travel. This means we need to speed up the flow of funding for local government to crack on and for more capacity at the centre (at the Department for Transport and at the new Active Travel England body). At this critical point in the battle for hearts and minds, we also need more air cover from Government. A summer manifesto of active travel ambitions with a foreword from the PM is a big deal, and was and should be rightly celebrated – but its not enough on its own and needs to be reinforced as the going gets tougher.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group