Journey into a locked-down world

(Picture: Empty platforms at Leeds station at rush hour during the first national lockdown in March 2020)

Like many others, my daily bus commute came to an abrupt end in March 2020. In the months since, my only real life experience of public transport in a COVID world was a couple of open-top bus trips up and down Great Yarmouth seafront in the brief respite of August 2020.  

That changed last week when I made the trip down south for the funeral of my Grandma. With numbers of mourners restricted, and wanting to minimise the risks involved, I travelled alone, meaning a journey on a train for the first time in over a year.  

Whilst expecting Leeds Station to be quiet, it was still a shock to see it so devoid of people, with passengers outnumbered by staff and contractors in hi-vis jackets working on the upgrades to the station. Signs reminding people to stay at home and save lives added to the somewhat dystopian feel and the oddness of being out in the world. 

I was surprised by how nervous I felt – like I had forgotten how to ‘do’ train travel – clumsily presenting my QR code as I passed through the ticket barriers and scanning the waiting LNER train, searching for the correct carriage and temporarily forgetting which order the alphabet runs in.  

Finding my seat, the carriage appeared empty, but the occasional rustle of a newspaper told me I was not alone. The space for seat reservation cards in the backs of the seats was now used to remind passengers that reservations were essential and that they should sit in their allocated seat only, to ensure social distancing.  

Posters and audio announcements reminded passengers that face coverings were required at all times unless exempt. I guiltily removed mine to eat my lunch and drink my tea, trying to bolt everything down as quickly as possible, feeling embarrassed to be ‘unmasked’ and feeling for those who are exempt and routinely run the gauntlet of the public gaze and judgement.  

The journey progressed smoothly, and the cleaning regime was reassuringly visible. Cleaning staff dressed in black, looking like members of a SWAT team strode the carriages, spraying everything in sight. Switching onto a local Thameslink service, again the cleaning team were working hard to keep every surface as safe and sanitised as possible. Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was eerily accurate when he imagined the demise of a planet which decided to send its telephone sanitisers and other seemingly unimportant workers off on an Ark into space. Those left behind were subsequently wiped out by a disease contracted from a dirty telephone. Cleaners are heroes. 

Arriving safely at my destination, despite the sad reason for my journey, it was absolutely wonderful to see my family (however briefly) after so long apart. 

(Picture: A near empty carriage on Rebecca’s journey)

The journey back to Leeds was less straightforward. I had somehow managed to book myself onto a Thameslink service that didn’t exist, meaning I would miss my LNER connection and lose my all-important reservation. Stressful at the best of times, but the context of COVID added a new level of anxiety. Would I be allowed on a different train, what about my reservation?  

The member of staff at the customer service desk seemed harassed and off-hand. He was unable to secure me a reservation and, scrawling my permission to travel on a tear-off sheet, sent me on the next north-bound LNER service with no advice as to my onward journey or where I should change. The train manager seemed equally stretched making me wonder whether staff are being pushed to breaking point by the pressures of keeping themselves and others safe and moving in a pandemic.  

In contrast, the member of catering crew (the first person I encountered on boarding the train), was kind and compassionate as – seeking reassurance – I felt the need to explain to him why I was sitting in a seat for which I had no reservation and my worries as to where I should alight for the next stage of my journey. He sat down, listened carefully and messaged the train manager, even offering to arrange me a reservation in advance of the next leg of my trip. A little kindness and understanding goes a long way, especially in these anxious, edgy times. And he made a fantastic bacon roll. 

Finally, I arrived back in Leeds, walking through the city centre to catch the bus home for the final leg of the journey. The city centre looked tired and unloved. With shuttered shops and windows frozen in time, still dressed in their Christmas finery, it was far from the buzzing city that I know and love. 

My bus, in normal times, would be pretty full throughout the day. This Friday lunchtime, there were three people downstairs and about five upstairs. I know that buses are cleaner than they have ever been and that companies are working hard to keep them as safe as they possibly can be.  

What you can’t account for is the unpredictability of us humans. It made for a somewhat worrying journey as one of my fellow passengers, talking away to himself, moved from seat to seat, taking his mask on and off as well as closing the windows that had been left open for the ventilation that is so important for reducing transmission. It highlighted to me the role that the bus plays, not just in transporting key workers during a pandemic, but also as the only travel option for some of the most vulnerable people in society, many of whom are likely to be isolated and cut off from their normal routines and support.  

My journey into the locked-down world was at times tense and nerve wracking. However, the things that matter are magnified but largely unchanged.  

Kind words, a friendly greeting, smiling eyes mean so much in a sea of masked faces.  

Seeing tangible evidence of enhanced cleaning regimes bolsters confidence and we should treasure the armies of staff that are responsible for delivering this. 

Clear information and good communication when a journey is disrupted will always do a lot to dispel anxiety and maintain goodwill. 

It all boils down to kindness and reassurance, both of which will be needed in spades as we begin to emerge, blinking into the light, from what we all hope will be the last lockdown. Happy trails everyone. 

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group 

Somewhere over the rainbow: a secure future for bus, a just recovery for all

I am one of the lucky few. I have been able to work safely and comfortably from home throughout the pandemic. I say lucky few because evidence suggests my experience is not the norm.

The Centre for Cities estimates that people able to work from home are in the minority in every UK town and city. London, Reading and Edinburgh have among the highest shares of people able to work from home (more than 40%). In Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke, just 20% of people can do so.

Many people in some of the hardest hit (and lowest paid) sectors – accommodation, food services, hospitality, arts, entertainment – have found themselves furloughed or made redundant – their incomes vanished or uncertain. Indeed, the UK’s lowest-paid workers are more than twice as likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic than higher paid employees, according to the Institute for Employment Studies. Unemployment has hit its highest level for four years and could rise higher still after the furlough scheme ends.

Others have needed to continue to travel to work, venturing out to care for, feed, serve, teach and transport others.

The first lockdown saw us unite as one nation under a rainbow, clapping every week for the NHS and recognising – at last – the people that we as a nation really can’t do without. They became our key workers – the nurses and supermarket staff, the carers and the teachers, the cleaners and refuse collectors, the postal workers and the bus drivers. These people are important – they always have been, and they always will be.

The Welsh Government has been ahead of the curve here. Back in that other world that was 2019, they launched a £4.5m fund to test ways of supporting and growing their ‘foundational economy’. The services and products that the foundational economy provides exist to keep us ‘safe, sound and civilised’ as they put it. They include care and health services; food; housing; energy; construction; the high street and more.

The foundational economy encompasses many of those that we now think of as key workers. As long as there are people, these services will be needed. It makes sense to invest in them, to grow them and to support their employees. They are not always the most glamourous of jobs – they do not tend to be high-tech or focused on R&D nor do they have export potential. But they are local, they support communities, they are a safe bet, they are needed. The same could be said for the bus.

Throughout the three lockdowns, our members have ensured that public transport has been there for key workers, through thick and thin, long after the rainbows in the windows have faded.

This is vital work given that those who cannot work from home are more likely to be bus users – lower paid, less likely to have access to a car and travelling shorter distances to jobs that serve their local communities.

Key workers are perhaps less prominent in this latest lockdown, but they must never again be forgotten. Neither must we leave behind all of those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic or have seen incomes slashed and savings wiped out. They too will need coordinated, convenient and affordable bus services.

Pre-pandemic data tells us that some 77% of jobseekers in British cities outside London do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike. The bus must therefore be ready and waiting to connect people to opportunities to move onwards and upwards.

However, its future feels far from certain. Before COVID-19, bus services were supported by a complex patchwork of declining, poorly targeted funding streams – hardly the pot of gold needed to keep fares affordable and prevent networks from shrinking. During the pandemic, the Government has rightly topped up funding to keep wheels turning. Nearly one year on from the first lockdown, the time is right to put bus funding on a secure, long-term footing, one that recognises the role the bus plays in supporting key workers and in enabling a just economic recovery that everyone can be a part of.

The additional £3 billion the Prime Minister has pledged for bus is an encouraging sign. But the forthcoming Bus Strategy offers the opportunity to go further. In it, Government should assess how much is needed to deliver better bus services and then simplify and devolve bus funding streams to transport authorities – those who are best placed to target that funding to achieve the best results for their people and places. Our briefing sets out the detail on how this could be done. In the first instance through temporary contracting of bus networks until we have arrived at a ‘new normal’ for bus use. And then moving to longer term arrangements – either through better regulated partnership arrangements with existing operators, the franchising of networks of services (as in London) or direct provision.

Whichever option is chosen, a devolved approach means that public transport networks could be planned and coordinated in a way that is accountable; puts local people and jobs first; and offers value for money for the taxpayer.

We owe it to our communities, to our key workers, to the people who need the bus the most, to safeguard its future and enable a just recovery for all.

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group

Is transport the cure-all that the NHS needs?

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Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman was recently quoted as saying “Pick a crisis: congestion, obesity, inequality, air pollution, global warming, safety…Investing in cycling and walking is as close to a silver bullet as you’ll get.”

The NHS is certainly in the market for a cure-all, unveiling last month the ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign. The campaign aims to ensure that the NHS and its staff step up efforts to tackle what it calls the climate ‘health emergency’. It recognises that what is bad for the planet – global warming, flooding, air pollution – is also bad for people’s health, with evidence linking these conditions to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, asthma and the spread of infections and diseases.

The campaign involves the establishment of an expert panel to chart a practical course to get the NHS to net zero emissions; a new NHS Standard Contract calling on hospitals to reduce carbon from buildings and estates; and a grassroots movement to encourage staff and hospitals to reduce their impact on the environment, and in doing so, improve people’s health.

Transport is recognised in the campaign as having a key role to play in placing the NHS on the path to net zero. It is estimated that patients and visitors to NHS facilities alone generate 6.7 billion road miles every year. The NHS Long Term Plan has previously committed to making better use of technology to reduce the number of face-to-face appointments patients need to attend. Staff travel is also a problem and the grassroots campaign will encourage more employees to travel on foot or by bike. In addition, NHS fleets are acknowledged as needing a clean-up, with NHS Chief Sir Simon Stevens pledging last year to help ‘blue lights go green’ to reduce their impact on climate and air pollution.

Transport, health and climate are inextricably linked to, and dependent on, one another. The transport choices we make as individuals, organisations and policy makers influence the speed of climate change and the quality of our air. They also help determine the amount of physical activity a person undertakes, their mental wellbeing and their access to opportunities.

For many years we have been calling for greater recognition of the connections between transport and health and for more collaboration between the two sectors. The tools and evidence base we have built and collected over this time can be found on our Health and Wellbeing hub. The ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign presents a big opportunity to strengthen and maximise those connections and relationships.

To this end, we have written to the newly appointed Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, Dr Nick Watts, welcoming him to the role and expressing our wish to work with the NHS in a strategic way to address our shared challenges. Our letter includes four propositions that we believe could help:

  1. A health and transport champion in each region charged with making the connections between the sectors and bringing leadership on the issue.Evidence suggests that progress on making the connections between transport and health is frequently driven by passionate individuals keen to make a difference above and beyond their day jobs. When these individuals move on, or when their organisations are restructured, the momentum can be quickly lost.Creating a specific, permanent role within each NHS England regional team to champion and drive forward joined-up thinking between health and transport could provide a stable footing for strategic, long-term collaboration.
  2. A health and transport convention in each region of England co-owned by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Department for Transport (DfT) to seek to broker ways forward.Our research shows that despite growing collaboration between our two sectors, significant barriers remain, from differing standards of evidence to the use of codified languages. From a transport perspective, even identifying whom to engage in the NHS – and maintaining that engagement – can prove very challenging.There would be value in enabling key health and transport stakeholders in each region to meet, build relationships and broker ways forward.
  3. Require the NHS to consult with transport authorities when making decisions on healthcare locations. The DfT and DHSC should co-commission good practice guidance on ensuring sustainable transport access to healthcare to support this.Evidence gathered from our members suggests that consultation by the health sector with transport bodies about decisions to open, close, merge or re-locate healthcare settings is patchy. When transport bodies are consulted, too often location decisions have already been made. Sites that are poorly integrated with public transport, walking and cycling networks generate more car journeys, contributing to congestion, poor air quality, climate change and physical inactivity.These issues can be avoided if transport authorities are consulted at the earliest possible stage. They can provide expert advice about which sites would be most accessible, minimise traffic and support non-car access (and therefore positive climate and health outcomes), enabling these factors to be designed into the scheme from the outset.
  4. An independently chaired government review to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of non-emergency patient transport services (NEPTS) and potential reforms.We believe that there is considerable scope to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of NEPTS to reduce the number of journeys and vehicles on the road.In 2017, we worked with the Community Transport Association and the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers to explore alternative approaches to commissioning non-emergency patient transport and found that taking a ‘Total Transport’ approach to NEPTS has the potential to generate significant savings for the NHS as well as deliver better outcomes for patients.

    Total Transport would see multiple public and community sector fleets (e.g. NHS, social care, education) bought together into a shared pool under a single point of access catering for a wide range of passengers (from patients to school children). Often there is considerable overlap in the vehicle standards and care components required across sectors. The pool of vehicles would be coordinated and scheduled centrally, taking into account options on the mainstream network. It would ensure that the entire public sector vehicle fleet is put to maximum use throughout the day and that the right vehicle is deployed for the right job (avoiding over-specification).

    In doing so, NHS and other public sector partners could achieve more using fewer vehicles and reduce the number of trips made overall. The benefits would be further extended if the pooled fleet was made up of zero or low emission vehicles.

As well as the Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, we have also shared these ideas with HM Treasury, Sir Simon Stevens (CEO of the NHS) and the Director of the Sustainable Development Unit (the body which supports the sustainable environmental, social and financial development of the NHS, public health and social care).

We hope that colleagues in the health sector find the ideas useful and take up our invitation to work more closely together at strategic level to fully realise the potential of clean, active transport as a prescription to cure the ills of people and planet alike.

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group