Covid-19 and transport

Professor Iain Docherty, Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Stirling

With the world’s response to lockdown changing the way we work, interact and move about, the impact on the UK’s transport sector has been substantial. Professor Iain Docherty looks at some of the key trends in a Covid-19 bite-sized lecture.

Watch the lecture online or read the transcript below.

Hello, everyone. My name’s Ian Docherty. I’m the Dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University, and this is my bite-sized lecture on transport and Covid-19. The material in this short lecture is mostly drawn from our study, which I’m currently doing with some colleagues at the University of Leeds, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

In our study on Covid-19 transport, travel and social adaptation, we’re doing two main strands of work. The first of which is a large household survey of several thousand people across the UK to find out how their travel habits have changed during lockdown, and we will follow them hopefully for up to a year to find out how their habits change over the longer term, and some expert interviews with people across government and the transport sector itself to find out how the transport network has dealt with the unprecedented demands of lockdown and no reopening as the economy slowly comes back to life.

So in our interviews, we spoke with over 20 people from 17 organisations across the UK. They included people from national government at UK and Scottish levels, some subnational city, regional and local government organisations, transport operators, infrastructure donors and network providers and a private sector transport consultancy. We carried these interviews between May the 20th and June 12th, so just as we been emerging from the and the hardest part of lockdown that the UK went through for roughly three months, and we have three main sections in our interview schedules and I’ll talk through some of the findings for those today. One of them is about pre-pandemic readiness, readiness in the sector, then what happens to travel demand and the operation of the transport system during lockdown and where we are today. Then finally, looking ahead to what the lasting implications of the Covid-19 pandemic might be not just for transport but its support for the economy more widely.

Pre-pandemic preparedness

So in terms of pre pandemic preparedness, the transport industry is generally very well prepared for a specific set of major events. So it and government has prepared for and indeed sadly practiced for events such as terror attacks. Also there’s lots of recent experience of major events such as the 2012 Olympics in London and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Also, many transport systems are open to recurring risks that we see more regularly. So flooding or severe winter weather would be examples. You probably have heard in the media that a pandemic was on the UK government’s national risk register as its number one risk. But, when we spoke to people across the sector, we found that there was very little communication downwards from government to other organisations in the transport sector about what this meant.

Some transport operators did have a pandemic when their audit risk registers, but that tended to be a business continuity risk. What I mean by that was that several operators were concerned about a flu pandemic or one which they had some kind of memory or understanding of the scale of in terms of what it would do to the proportion of the workforce that was available for work during the winter period, for example, and what that would mean for the proportion of services that would be able to be offered. Although many transport companies and service providers shared their risk registers, their concerns about workforce planning up the way to government and other organizations, we do not seem to have found much evidence that if any at all, in fact, about discussions between government and between operators, about their different understandings of a pandemic risk and what that will mean beyond these operational issues of workforce planning.

More positively, many people did tell us that their recent extensive experience of planning for a ‘No-Deal Brexit’ had opened civil servants’ and other people’s minds to the need to plan for quite difficult scenarios and to put in place contingency plans that were better developed and more robust than perhaps have been the case in recent years.

Lockdown and policy response

Now, if we look at what actually happened to the transport sector during lockdown, this slide essentially tells you everything you need to know about the impact of the pandemic on transport mobility in one image. So, you might remember from the Number 10 briefings that were given by the UK Government that for a while during that series of briefings, they showed these slides using some indicators about the use of the transport network to illustrate how lockdown was being observed by the population as a whole. This slide is from the last time we think that this data was shown at a UK Government briefing. Some things that you’ll immediately see jump out from it is that although car traffic declined from roughly normal before the lockdown on 23rd of March to roughly 25% of normal shortly  after that, it began to recover quite quickly. And so by the beginning of June, in most places, we were about back to 70% or 75% of the normal levels of car traffic. And now, on the 10th of July, that figure is near 80% to 85% in most places.

Public transport, on the other hand, saw an unprecedented cliff edge decline in demand. So, demand for rail services, both national rail and the tube in London, fell by something between 95% to 97% compared with comparable dates in previous years. That is an absolutely incredible change in the level of demand for public transport, but note interestingly, that if you see the slide, for example, in a national rail and the bottom left hand corner, you’ll see that demand for travel by public transport had already declined substantially before we officially entered lockdown. So even on the 16th of March, one week before the formal lockdown announcement on the 23rd, demand for many public transport modes was already down a quarter than what would be expected?

You’ll also probably have heard about walking and cycling having grown a lot during a pandemic. And that’s true. A chart in the top rate shows you the numbers that the UK government collected for cycling. You’ll also see there’s a huge variation in those numbers. Although cycling increased by a factor of maybe two to three at its peak during lockdown, other evidence suggests that that was actually people who were either working from or were on furlough, taking advantage of better than normal weather to get some exercise.

So, when we spoke to transport operators, they told us that actually shutting down the network was the easy part of what they’re having to deal with and that everything after that has been more difficult. To give you an idea about the financial implications of this start with, public transport operators in general told us that they had enough cash to keep their businesses going for about two weeks – just two weeks! So, the numbers you see here about the level of financial support that government has had to give to the transport sector are absolutely huge. The rail industry for the six months between March and September 2020, when the current emergency management agreements will run out, has had more than three billion pounds worth of additional emergency financial support. The bus system, roughly about one tenth of that, just under 300 million. Similar figures for light rail and for the Glasgow subway, Edinburgh, Tram in Scotland. Of course, the ferry network is for the Scottish Government – it’s an interesting special case because there are no ferries in England, so there is no UK financial emergency financial model to generate support. So, that’s had to be funded entirely from the Scottish Government’s budget.

These numbers are big enough, but they also highlight something, I think, which is really interesting, which is that the generally privatized market of transport provision we’ve had over the last 15 or so years really has shown to be not very resilient in terms of its capacity to continue operating with government support. But then that’s not surprising because these private models are based on a market system with a margin that many operating companies can expect to make is as low as 2 to 3 percent. So, if you think back to those numbers about how quickly and suddenly demand fell, it’s no surprise that the financial structure of the industry came under pressure incredibly quickly. The immediate policy response is you may indeed have had experience of, well, very quickly it became obvious that try trying to provide space for physical distancing on the transport network itself, but also around stations and stocks would be very challenging. So you’ll have seen the work that’s been done to do that. You’ll also have seen that because the capacity of public transport has been reduced during lockdown itself and went to meet physical distancing was strictly applied. The capacity of public transport that was available could be as low as 15% of normal at normal level. So operators have had to move quickly to change how their vehicles work. You’ll also probably have seen that there have been quite a few efforts to what we call re-allocate road space away from general traffic towards walking and cycling to give people who are using their bikes or simply walking around more to try and use local facilities during lockdown more space to observe the two meter real and government did spend substantial amounts of money to make this happen –  £250 million pounds in England and £30 million Scotland, what we call pop up active travel schemes.

One criticism of these that we had was that they were based largely on competitive funding processes where local authorities were in competition with one another for these funds. So, those local authorities that had existing plans that were ready to go did better and that may or may not have been the ideal set of projects to keep us all safe and moving during lockdown.

Something else, which I think every single one of our interviewees mentioned to us, and I’m sure you have seen this yourself watching the briefings as the unprecedented messaging about the transport sector that we’ve seen during the pandemic. It’s absolutely unprecedented that government has told people not to travel. You can see from the UK Government’s slide in the bottom left corner there that the message has been very, very strongly for people to avoid public transport in particular. So, we know also from some of the public opinion poll work that has been done, that people are quite reticent to go back to many shared spaces and activities and public transport vehicles are one of those. Although, of course, the UK Secretary of State was also quite pleased to say that there was good news in that car showrooms were one of the first retailing sectors that were able to reopen as the economy began to unlock.

Now, that messaging is absolutely unprecedented and it’s the concern of many people across the sector that the ramifications of that collapse of demand in public transport, but also the experience of using this system with face coverings and with physical distancing in place, will alter how we use the network and the demand for travel across all different kinds of transport for years to come.

Looking ahead

So when we look ahead, we spoke to, as I said, over 20 people, and they had a staggeringly broad range of expectations for the future. It must be said that most people in the private sector or operating companies that tend to be much more pessimistic about the future than those in the public sector or government. Many of these people work in the transport network where things cost a lot of money and plans for big projects take a long time. These people are used to working and timeframes of years or decades. As one of them said to us, two months is a long time in transport and it’s almost impossible to see ahead beyond a few weeks to understand what will happen to future demand. What we do know, however, is that many of the changes that we’ve seen have been huge accelerations of existing trends. So, something like a third of people have been working from home regularly during the lockdown.

The trend towards home working and indeed online retailing and the growth of active travel, particularly cycling, all of these things were in evidence before the pandemic, but they’ve been hugely accelerated during it. And as we look ahead, we’ve got a set of what we call primitive political demand uncertainties which really are, as I put this lecture together in June-July 2020, these are the things which are right at the front of everybody’s minds in the sector. And it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that whether or not there will be a vaccine or effective therapeutic treatment for Covid-19 is the most important uncertainty which the transport system is facing. But importantly, a future in which we don’t have a vaccine, in which we have to keep the virus under control through social distancing and changing our everyday lives for the medium or indeed the long term is not yet part of the thinking of everyone across the sector. But if we’re to be more optimistic and believe that we will have a vaccine, then clearly how long it is until that vaccine is available, until the population as access to it, becomes immune etc. is absolutely critical to public transport demand because nobody we spoke to expects public transport demand to recover to normal without an effective vaccine, and indeed most people thought that a long term fall of patronage, passenger numbers on buses and trains of 20% to 25% was about the best possible outcome they could see at the moment.

Also, the size of the likely economic recession, which we’re about to enter, is not uniformly recognized across the sector, despite the growth of the economy being a major contributor to transport trends. Then there are some other behavioural or economic uncertainties which we are watching in real time. So, what will happen to city centres? Will people continue to commute to them in the increasing numbers that they have done over recent years? What does that mean for not just the transport sector, but the future of the property market and the jobs market in cities? Of the behaviour changes like that increase in walking and cycling that we’ve seen, will we sick when we move into winter or will we revert back to much more use, even more use of the car? What will the need to travel around in winter mean for public transport?

Then looking ahead, perhaps the most fundamental level, there our very close connections between how we travel around and how we organize the economy. So where we travel to and who is able to make use of the services that are available really does explain a lot about how the employment market works and how the economy develops. One thing that we have learned from the experience during lockdown is that the socio-economic impacts of changing travel habits during lockdown and changing travel service options has been very marked. Many people in professional occupations, like many of us who work for the University, have been able to keep working full time at home. We haven’t had to travel to be able to undertake our jobs, although if you’re in a manual occupation, then that’s clearly impossible. One other thing we’ve learned and we’ve seen demonstrated every day is how many of the key workers that perhaps have become visible in a way that they should have been long ago really do rely on those public transport systems and services that still have been and still have been running. An interesting little fact is that the peak hour of most public transport services has moved from 8 to 9 a.m., which it wasn’t. It was dominated by office traffic to 6 to 7 a.m., where people that go to work on shift patterns travel around. It’s not just that the behaviours, like how many of us will travel to city centres five days a week, which might change. Many of the profound fundamentals of transport economics really are challenged by the pandemic in a way that most people have found really surprising. So, again, although some of these economic assumptions have been under some degree of question for some time, particularly the value of time (so, how long it is that we spend travelling determines how much money government invests in different projects, by and large). If we’re going to travel much less and if a lot of commuting will be replaced by this kind of virtual interaction and using digital tools across the Internet, then all of the economic assumptions we make about what kinds of transport projects we build and how we pay for them and how much it costs us as users to use them every day, these assumptions will begin to change and change quite dramatically, especially given that shortfall in the basic cost of running the network, which I showed you earlier on.

Then, of course, when we emerge from the pandemic, we can be fairly sure, I think now, that we won’t go back to the status quo ante or what transport and the economy looks like for the years ahead will not be the same as it did when we entered 2020. So there is probably a unique opportunity here to change some of how we organize the system to meet our climate change commitments, for example. We would hope, I think at least that we wouldn’t experience a disruption of this magnitude again. There are very few years we have now left, if we’re going to reduce and change the carbon trajectory of the transport system to help us meet those binding climate aspirations and commitments.

This is my final slide. You can find out more about our study at the study website. That study is led by my good friend and colleague, Professor Greg Martin at the University of Leeds, with whom I’ve already done a couple of these presentations and thank you to him for some of the contributions to the material that you’ve seen in this lecture. You can also see our submission to the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on economic recovery, where we go through some of these trends and some of the implications for looking ahead, particularly that final point I made about how we might seek to change some of the trajectories of transport to make the future greener on the Scottish Government website at the link below. So I hope you find that useful.

Thanks very much for watching and listening and stay safe.

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