COVID-19 and urban transport – the message, the money & the future


The message

We’ve had the first weekend in England since the latest easing of COVID-19 and now the first working week has begun. Early signs are that public transport patronage is picking up sharply but it’s too early to say at the time of writing to what extent this will stretch the capacity of public transport which is already heavily constrained by social distancing.

However, the time is surely approaching when we can move away from a single national approach to messaging about the use of public transport (in effect based on London’s unique conditions) to one which can be fine tuned locally to take into account the capacity that may be available in very different geographies. We don’t want public transport which is too busy to be safe in some areas – but at the same time, it makes no sense for public transport to be running empty in other areas whilst the roads fill up with cars bringing road casualties and air pollution in its wake.

More widely, the top down approach to the response to COVID-19 leads to other problems too. Perhaps this was most starkly illustrated recently by the withholding of information about the full details of local COVID-19 infection data from those local authorities and Directors of Public Health who need that data to ensure local responses are as effective as possible. On transport, this top down approach has settled down into a consistent pattern which consumes vast amounts of time which could be spent more productively. First comes the speculation, probing and rehearsing different scenarios whilst we wait for key decisions to be made. Then an announcement comes largely out of the blue on a key issue (such as making face coverings compulsory on public transport). Often the announcement lacks all the guidance and information needed to implement it. So then there is the second guessing, probing and speculative implementation of policies at short notice whilst we await the full details. Then the details emerge – and then there is a process of reorienting policy and delivery around that. And so it goes on. This is time wasted that could also be spent looking ahead and planning in a more considered way for what the next operational challenge of the COVID-19 response could be. It’s also not effective overall either – as the UK’s poor record on its coronavirus response in comparison to other countries shows.

The money

The additional COVID-19 money runs out for light rail and bus (in England outside London) in less than a month’s time. Emergency funding for private operators of national rail services runs out in September. Transport for London’s additional funding runs out in mid-October. There are different rules and timescales for different modes – but all the funding deals were time limited and they are all approaching the end point. The funding deal for local bus and tram (outside London) being the first to expire. If the past is any guide to the future, then HMT will insist on taking it to the wire and find anyway it can to get public transport used to the idea of starting to come off financial life support in advance of the Autumn (when the hope is life will have settled down to a new normal which is closer to pre COVID-19 life than it is to the national lockdown). The trouble is, that with Government advising people to steer clear of a socially distanced public transport network, fares income has collapsed and it’s only the additional COVID-19 financial life support which is keeping public transport alive. And even when and if the messaging changes about the use of public transport and capacity is restored, it’s hard to see patronage returning to its pre COVID-19 rates any time soon, if ever (and certainly not by the Autumn).

Meanwhile, there is no money yet for the additional costs of getting kids to school in September, the Government is still expecting transport authorities to continue to pay bus operators for concessionary trips that aren’t being made and Merseytravel hasn’t seen any funding for its Merseyrail Electrics franchise.

Much angst lies ahead on funding – but much time wasted too on trying to keep the show on the road on the basis of short-term, cliff edge deals and complicated one-size fits all funding packages (this also compounds the time already wasted on operational issues set out above). This is why we continue to make the case for additional funding for bus to be devolved to transport authorities. We can then deploy it alongside light rail funding in an integrated way that meets local needs whilst at the same time replace a system which means we pay for bus journeys that aren’t being made with a system where we can support bus networks that are being provided.

The future

The big task ahead is to fuse a green recovery from COVID-19 with the decarbonisation agenda in a way that makes better places. The Committee on Climate Change recently reported to Parliament on how it thinks this should happen with its top five investment priorities being:

  1. Low-carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future.
  2. Tree planting, peatland restoration, and green infrastructure.
  3. Energy networks must be strengthened for the net-zero energy transformation in order to support electrification of transport and heating.
  4. Infrastructure to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely.
  5. Moving towards a circular economy.

The opportunity that the lockdown brought to address number four by reallocating road space to active travel has been one of the most positive aspects of the last few months. But there are big challenges ahead in retaining and developing the levels of lockdown modal shift to active travel and in maintaining the road space reallocation momentum (including turning the temporary and rudimentary into long-term quality). But leaders at the local and national level have got religion about active travel – and that’s half the battle.

We are gearing up on number three on the list – as we need a coordinated approach to the electrification of transport (rail, bus, car, e-bikes) which integrates approaches to both the vehicles and the infrastructure to get the juice where it needs to be. City regions should have a key role to play in this and we are working with other bodies – like the Energy Systems Catapult and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership – to ensure that they do.

Transport can also play a role in priorities one and two – which we explored in our Making the connections on climate report looking at good practice from the UK and the wider world on how transport authorities and providers can decarbonise their own estate whilst improving its resilience through green infrastructure.

We can build back better from this crisis and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether we aim to play our full part.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

Into the unknown


UTG Tram and light rail2

As tough as it gets for public transport

This is as tough as it gets for public transport. The Government’s decision to trigger a restart last night (Sunday), that begins this morning, has run ahead of the guidance on how public transport should respond. Leaving us with not a chance of being able to prepare in a consistent way to make the best fist of what is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. That challenge being to run the biggest service you can, whilst protecting staff and seeking to ensure passengers keep two metres from each other.

Not only did we have no clear guidance from Government in advance on the detail of how they want us to achieve this – at present we don’t even know how much detail there is going to be. On top of that (other than for rail), we don’t have any detail on what the funding package will be to support the ramp up in services. Given that COVID-19 transmission is more likely in enclosed spaces, and where people are in close proximity for prolonged periods of time, it was always going to be particularly difficult for public transport to manage the risks in its preparation for restart. But trying to plan in the information vacuum of recent weeks has made that task even harder and contributed to public transport now being portrayed as the pariah mode of transport – the one to be avoided. In the week ahead we will do our level best to collectively respond as adroitly as we can to the hand we have been dealt – but it’s difficult to see how the result isn’t going to be messy (at best).

The dam breaks on active travel

In stark contrast to the gloom around public transport, is the unconfined joy that permeated Twitter over the dam breaking at the weekend on Government support (fiscal, policy and verbal) for getting more people walking and cycling. However, compared to the intractable problems on public transport as a result of COVID-19, the obstacles to the roll out of temporary road space reallocation are much more manageable. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how you use cheap, basic immediate road space reallocation measures to prepare the way for more expensive longer term street redesign, done in quality. And in doing so, how you also lock in capacity for buses (the importance of which many green commentators and advocacy bodies seem to have forgotten about in the excitement).

Let the circle be unbroken

In the many weeks since this all began I’ve been in innumerable telecons but not one so far where there was Department for Transport reps from rail and from local transport at the same time. This is symptomatic of a wider compartmentalised approach where what seems to be seen as the elite public transport mode (rail) gets both a privileged dialogue and funding deal with Government (national rail got its funding deal the day lockdown was announced – whilst TfL is still waiting). Meanwhile, local public transport trails in at the back of the queue. This compartmentalised approach makes no sense when passengers experience rail as part of a wider public transport system in different areas and when a common approach to social distancing, service ramp ups and messaging to the public is going to be critical at this very difficult time for public transport as a whole.

The other circle that needs to be closed soon is on travel demand management in terms of joining up whatever Government is saying to business at the national level and what we need to be saying to major employers and destinations in our areas… especially with the danger of numerous mini-peaks occurring as highly constrained public transport attempts to cope with peaks in demand at different times from different major employers and destinations.

Personally, I am baffled as to why the Government has triggered more transport demand in advance of publishing the guidance on how this should be handled. But this is where we find ourselves and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether our task over the next few weeks will be to deal with the consequences in the best way we can for our people, our passengers and the places we serve.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group



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.