If fewer people travel to city centres for their work, are urban and transport plans likely to go into sharp reverse? asks Mark Smulian
Every so often there comes a historical process or technological innovation whose consequences will obviously be profound, but which can barely be guessed at during their early stages – think the 1980s deindustrialisation or the arrival of the internet.
Two have come together with the Covid-19 pandemic: a large shift to working at home coupled with the technological means to do this suddenly becoming widespread.
The pandemic lockdown forced people into home working who might otherwise never have done so, sometimes using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts and other means of online communication with groups of colleagues and clients.
And this does not just refer to work.
With shops closed, many buyers turned to online retail, giving the UK’s beleaguered high streets another shove towards economic doom, while closed cinemas, theatres and venues drove increased use of online home entertainment.
What nobody knows is whether the changes will prove permanent, though plenty are thinking and speculating.
If these changes are embedded, could more home working and, as a consequence, less commuting undermine the economic basis of public transport and the viability of associated infrastructure projects?
Were that to happen, would it be any more sensible to insist on ‘defending’ current provision than it would have been a century ago to ‘defend’ municipal horse troughs in the face of motor traffic?
Even if progress was limited, some places achieved modal shift from cars to public transport.
So, will that go into reverse if people are scared to use buses and trains for health reasons and, anyway, travel less often for work, shopping and entertainment?
While the overnight switch to home working for the pandemic saw many obliged to commandeer kitchen tables as best they could, any long-term shift could see people move beyond urban areas – since they would have no need of quick daily access to a workplace – and want a larger home with a specific workspace to free up table space in the kitchen.
Planning policies based on sustainability aimed at encouraging ‘densification’ could be under threat as people move beyond green belts and demand more land for larger homes thus threatening an urban sprawl.
But, while it’s too early for firm evidence, there are plenty of survey results that could be bad news for public transport.
Smart Transport’s own reader survey found no respondent who thought public transport use would increase and 94% who thought fewer people would use it, while 69% of respondents expected fewer people would move to cities, and only 7.7% thought more would do so.
Business services firm Deloitte found 70% of staff in financial services considered home working a positive experience, with 76% saying not having to commute was the best thing about this, while the same proportion felt they had become more productive.
Has the stage been set for more and more companies adopting agile working?
Although 55% expected their offices to reopen over the summer months, those who intended to work from home at least once a week increased from 41% before lockdown to 77% and for two days or more from 12% to 43%.