The Covid-19 crisis has offered the best chance to reshape the transport landscape since World War II. Will we seize this once in a generation opportunity?
In a little more than a month, the UK’s transport landscape changed beyond all recognition.
The immediate changes are stark. After decades at the heart of a dogmatic political point-scoring contest, the railways were quietly renationalised as travel demand collapsed by as much as 95%.
After years at the centre of an equally politically-charged debate over additional capacity, Heathrow Airport was operating at 25% of its passenger capacity.
It remains unclear whether it will ever return to its previous capacity – let alone require the additional capacity of a third runway.
Journeys across all modes fell to 60% of pre-lockdown levels, car factories across Europe closed and after years of explosive growth, the car leasing industry warned about a collapse in demand and residual values as redundant employees handed back the keys to their company cars.
In the short term, the risks to our pressured transport infrastructure are urgent and real.
In the face of collapsing fare revenues, the battle simply to preserve what we have will require billions of pounds of Government support.
In the recovery phase, as Britain emerges from the lockdown, social distancing and strengthened public health and hygiene requirements to protect both passengers and employees will almost certainly
continue to reduce both demand and capacity for months to come.
And in the longer term, questions will remain about the efficiency and sustainability of short and long-haul business travel and the marked productivity gains and cost savings ushered in by a global boom in video conferencing.
But, despite the almost apocalyptic impact of the Covid-19 crisis, there are potential opportunities and upsides which transport planners worldwide are starting to embrace.
As transport professionals across the country move from the fire fighting and crisis management phase, to planning for the ‘new normal’, which are the most salient priorities likely to emerge during the post-pandemic recovery?
Is it incumbent on the transport sector to return to the status quo as quickly as possible, or should the lockdown be capitalised upon to accelerate the reset required to rapidly decarbonise transport and turbo-charge the transition to tele-working, zero emissions commuting and active travel?
According to Government figures, at the peak of the UK lockdown, transport use across all modes declined by 60%, with rail and tube use in London falling by more than 95%.
The financial impact of this decline will continue to be felt for months – if not years.
In the immediate term, the challenges for public transportation managers are likely to focus on maintaining skeleton services and mitigating the financial impact of a collapse in passenger numbers.
While private sector bus operators are receiving Government support to maintain their services, public sector tram and light rail operators have yet to receive any state financial backing.
As lockdowns ease further and travel demand increases, the emphasis is likely to shift to adapting existing provision to meet more stringent protocols for hygiene which are likely to increase costs while continuing to restrict passenger capacity.
At this stage, it is difficult to gauge the extent of any modal shift as a direct consequence of continuing health fears over Covid-19, but it seems likely a significant proportion of commuters may shun rail or bus services for other modes.
If these journeys shift into private cars, the impact on urban congestion (and air quality) could be profound.
Some of these journeys may shift to active travel modes (walking and cycling) and an opportunity exists to shape these shifts by incentivising more sustainable modes of transport as lockdowns begin to be lifted.
Read Mark Sutcliffe's full article on the changing transport landscape from Smart Transport Journal