Stephen Joseph says many matters still need to be resolved, but ‘some of the directions of travel for transport are becoming clearer’
With the world and the people in it still dominated by Covid-19, its impact remains the biggest issue for those involved in transport and mobility.
Much of this is about the uncertainties the virus has generated. Will people want to use public transport in the future? Will people be working from home all or some of the time, and what does that mean for offices and the businesses who support them and, indeed, the places they are sited in?
There are now lots of surveys of travel behaviour and public attitudes to travel and commuting.
On public transport, the evidence is clear – many of those with any choice are cautious about using it, especially on longer commutes to the bigger cities.
Passengers are slowly coming back to buses in the smaller towns, but rail use is still well down and travel into bigger cities as a whole is still low.
In part this is because some types of travel demand are down. Schools are only just reopening, so those with school-age children have remained at home for the moment.
Employers are not, in the main, pushing people back to work in offices, so those in the shops and service companies dependent on those offices are also working less.
Then there are longer term effects – online shopping during lockdown has led to closure of shops and stores – out of town as well as on the high street.
And, as has been widely noted, the growth of Zoom etc. has led many firms to discover they don’t need so much office space, anyway, and that business travel is overrated.
Quite where these are going to end up is very unclear – I’ve been detecting a weariness with constant Zoom and Teams calls and a desire for people to meet up with workmates and restart the innovation and connection that only comes from talking to someone in person.
This is amplified for those with school-age or pre-school children at home and the difficulty of balancing their demands and their home-schooling with work.
So, it may be that when schools reopen many more will venture back to workplaces.
But it is clearer than ever that for many the five day/week commute is not coming back – more flexibility, with home/remote working combined with some in-person meetings to remake connections and reawaken team spirits, seems likely to be, in the already hackneyed phrase, the “new normal”.
All this will have profound implications for transport. There are some signs of people staying more local, which may mean that local hubs for mobility and workspaces, as championed by CoMoUK and increasingly by sub-national bodies like England’s Economic Heartland and Midlands Connect, may come into their own.
Alongside this, the Government appears determined to shape as well as respond to the emerging trends.