Smart Transport

Covid-19 travel adaptation report shows big boost for UK active travel

Businessman walking

Walking has seen a 20% increase across the UK, according to a one year review of travel adaptation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The “Reflections on a year of Covid-19 travel adaptations” report by emissions reduction network DecarboN8 and the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), draws on national sources and a panel survey of over 6,000 people conducted in July and December 2020.

It also shows that cycling levels have increased relative to last year.

This is despite cycle commuters being very likely to work from home. 

The report says the warm conditions of the first lockdown saw levels increase two to threefold.

Professor Greg Marsden, network director at DecarboN8 and professor of transport governance at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds, says: “Tracking people’s behaviour over time and marrying that up with policy responses is the only way to really understand who, where and why change has happened. 

“There have been many articles and papers written on Covid-19 behavioural response.

“Narratives have emerged around the death of public transport and car use already getting back to normal, streets being swamped with delivery vehicles and bike sales going through the roof. Our data confirms some of these but challenges some others.”

Return of the car as king?

Interestingly the report shows there has been no increase in car ownership and car use overall is down.

Over the last 12 months there has been a 35% fall in new car sales and a 15% fall in used car sales.

Light van traffic mirrors trends in car use and not trends in online retail sales (which indeed have mushroomed from 18% of sales by value to 35%).

Public transport has been decimated, recovering only to 60% of previous levels in its best weeks of Autumn 2020.

Marsden says: “We have been reminded of just how important these services are, with our survey showing that nearly 60% of those using bus and rail saying they had no alternative for those journeys.

“It was encouraging to see the Bus Strategy recognise the need for transition funding to build up public confidence in getting back to using the bus.”

Marsden says the results show there is strong demand to see more investment in giving over road space to walking and cycling.

People are also likely to go back to their offices “as they did in the Autumn to a degree”.

However, the question with all of these changes is: how much will people revert back from remote work to commuting?

Should we stick, twist or fold?

Marsden says: “Our analysis suggests that if people currently working from home who used to drive to work continued working from home two days a week, we would cut morning peak car trips to the extent that traffic levels would feel like a school half term. Unimaginable? We don’t think so.

“So, the question is should we “stick” and try and hold on to some of the changes we have seen without making many changes to transport policy? 

“Twist” which is to recognise the need to do things differently and to lock-in demand reduction and promotion of active travel alternatives?

“Or should we “fold” and say that society needs to “get back to normal” and the paradigm of motorised mobility at the fore.”

Marsden says all of the above are possible policy pathways, but DecarboN8 endorses a “twist” strategy.

He added: “The transport system we had before the pandemic was congested, overcrowded, unsafe and polluting.

“It was unfit for a public health epidemic and contributed to it by promoting high levels of inactivity. Things had to change anyway.”

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Following a transformational year for transport, the sector must now align investment and policy in response to ongoing decarbonisation ambitions, the need for more efficient living and better health, as well as changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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