The measures we put in place around transport and mobility are critical to how we emerge from this pandemic and rebuild in the coming years. In this blog, Dr Ransford A. Acheampong examines how to make transport safe as some of the most vulnerable groups are returning to work, and shows that active travel is essential to reducing pressure on public transport and should become central to our transport and mobility futures.
- Low-wage vulnerable workers, who cannot work from home and are at greater risk of catching the virus, tend to depend on public transport for commuting purposes.
- Social distancing can be achieved with walking and cycling, making a mass cycling culture critical to our collective health, well-being and resilience now and in the future.
- There is a unique opportunity to learn lessons and to invent new futures for towns and cities, including the way we travel.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought major disruptions to social life, work and the way we travel. There is already evidence pointing to serious ramifications for the global economy. In the UK, after months of lockdown to protect public health, the government is desperate to have the wheels of the economy turning again. The lockdown is gradually being eased since mid-May, and people are being asked to return to work.
It is clear that the measures we put in place around transport and mobility will be critical to how we emerge from this pandemic and rebuild in the coming years. This is particularly important in the face of real concerns that the government’s responses regarding transport and mobility, in the short to medium term, will have serious implications on whether or not there is a second wave of infection of the virus.
In the months of the lockdown, we have witnessed an overall decreasing trend in movement by different modes, including public transport, car-based transport and even walking and cycling. As people return to work, we are also witnessing a gradual increase in traffic on our roads and in the use of public transit in our major towns and cities, such as London. One of the key questions we now face is how to make transport safe for people who are returning to work?
In response to this, the UK government has issued transport and travel guidelines, which essentially advices commuters to avoid public transport, if they can, and instead drive, cycle or walk. What could the likely impact of these transport measures be?
Some of the most vulnerable groups are returning to work
Firstly, we know from the evolving evidence that while COVID-19 poses serious risks to the population as a whole, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are some of the most affected groups in the UK. While factors such as prior health status and underlying health conditions have been attributed, it is possible that the differential levels of risk and vulnerability are partly the result of the occupations that people are engaged in. It appears that people in low-wage work across different sectors of the economy are at greater risk of catching the virus, partly because of the nature of their work. These low-wage vulnerable workers, who cannot work from home, also tend to depend on public transport for commuting purposes.
On the one hand, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has indicated that it is a ‘civic duty’ for people to avoid public transport. On the other hand, we know that public transport is essential for most people to access opportunities, including going to work. Indeed, in 2018/19, some 4.8 billion journeys were made by people using their local buses in Britain, constituting about 58% of all public transport journeys. In London, 27% of workers drive to work, with many of the remaining workers depending on other modes, including public transport. This means that some of the most vulnerable population who are now returning to work, do need public transport to be able to do so. Consequently, there is real risk that people will continue to use public transport in large numbers despite government advice, potentially risking their health and that of the general population.
Making public transport safe and reducing travel-related transmissions
So, how do we ensure that transportation measures being taken actually protect public health?
- Increase public transport service frequency. The UK government’s latest safer travel guidelines indicate that there is going to be reduced capacity of public transport services. However, in order to avoid overcrowding on public transport, as we are starting to see on tubes and buses in London and elsewhere, it is crucial that capacity is increased by increasing the frequency of services, especially during peak-hours of travel.
- Make public transport faster. Again, the UK government’s safer travel guidelines signals that travel may take longer than normal on some routes. Longer travel time, added to social distancing not being possible as a result of overcrowding, could increase the time that passengers come into contact on public transport, thereby increasing risk of travel-related transmission of the virus. As more people return to work driving, congestion could return, and travel delays on public transport in our major towns and cities could return to the pre-pandemic levels or even worsen. Thus, in the short-to-medium term, it would make sense to reallocate more road space by creating new dedicated bus lanes with the aim to making service more frequent and faster.
- Ensure social distancing on public transport and at stations. Basic measures such as reducing occupancy on public transport, marking seats where passengers can sit and controlling passenger flow in stations could go a long way to making public transport use safe and protecting the vulnerable populations who depend on it. Obviously, doing so will amount to reducing capacity, but this can be offset by increasing the frequency and speed of services, such that at regular intervals, more buses, tubes and trams are available for people to board.
Active transport—are more people going to cycle?
The benefits of cycling and walking are obvious, and it does not come as a surprise that the safer travel guidelines encourage more people to do so as they return to work. From the UK government’s position, as reflected in the travel guidelines, walking and cycling are essential to reducing pressure on public transport. Social distancing can be achieved with walking and cycling, with added benefits to the environment and the health of those who do it. The government’s plans for cycling in particular, and some of the actions backing those plans, including the ‘creation of a £2 billion package to create a new era for cycling and walking’, are steps in the right direction and are welcome. However, we need to be careful and even cautiously optimistic about what levels of cycling could actually be realised in the short-to-medium term.
Compared to countries such as The Netherlands and Norway, the UK is a low-cycling country. Nationally, cycling constitutes just about 1% of total trip mileage. In London, where cycling has increased significantly in recent years, less than 3% of all trips were undertaken using the bike pre-COVID19 pandemic. Females and older adults as well as ethnic minorities and low-income groups are under-represented in the number of people who cycle.
A plausible scenario for the UK is that car use will return to pre-pandemic levels or even increase as people avoid public transport. This could make cycling seem unsafe, especially for those that the government is intending to encourage to change their behaviours. If commuters do not drive and cannot cycle, then they have no option but to use public transport. Thus, in the short-to-medium term, as more people return to work, the focus should be on making public transport safer, faster and reliable, by implementing the measures already outlined in this article.
Beyond the pandemic—inventing our transport and mobility futures
In the coming months and years, society and economies will recover from the devastating impacts of COVID-19. There is a unique opportunity to learn lessons and to invent new futures for towns and cities, including the way we travel. Sustained, long-term investment in cycling, walking and public transport should be central in these futures.
As this pandemic has shown, a mass cycling culture, is critical to our collective health, well-being and resilience now and in the future. There is the need for policy to help remove barriers to cycling among under-represented groups, to create inclusive transport futures. In the unfortunate event of another pandemic, we can be sure that the investments we make in cycling and walking, in particular, will yield dividend in aiding our rapid recovery.
Above all, making transport sustainable will be crucial to reversing climate change and averting potential cataclysmic impacts now and in the future.