Pre-pandemic, the Government was promising ‘bold and ambitious action’ to address transport climate issues. The goals can still be achieved, but the challenge is vast, says Darren Shirley
Before Covid-19, the Government had begun to set out an agenda that would have seen our transport system transformed.
Greater levels of sustainable transport would have been achieved through increased active travel and public transport combined with a move to zero emission vehicles.
Just weeks before the lockdown, the need to reduce carbon emissions to net zero and bring air pollution within legal limits led Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to promise “bold and ambitious action” to ensure that “public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities”.
Just a few months have passed since Shapps made those statements, but transport has undergone a seismic change which no one could have predicted.
As the UK begins the process of recovery, the need for sustainable transport has only strengthened, but now the question is how do we ensure that those promises are not forgotten in these uncertain times and in the rush to get the economy back on its feet?
Campaign for Better Transport’s latest report, Covid-19 Recovery: Renewing the Transport System, examines the scale of the challenge ahead and makes the case for a green, transport-led recovery post-Covid.
The ongoing effect of the pandemic on the transport network is unprecedented, putting the very viability of public transport at risk.
In the short term, reduced passenger numbers have had profound financial implications for public transport operators, and the continued need for social distancing will impact on fare revenue for the foreseeable future.
Despite Transport for London (TfL) services being back up to 94% of pre-Covid levels, passenger numbers are still only about a fifth of what they were a year ago.
On the national rail network, where passengers were told to “consider all other forms of transport before using public transport”, numbers are languishing around 15% of normal.
In the longer term, passenger demand could be affected by increased home working, public mistrust in the safety of public transport and the expected economic downturn.
But the long-term economic and social costs of permanently diminishing the public transport system will be much greater than the short-term costs of renewing the sector.
While passenger numbers on public transport remain low, car traffic on the other hand is back to between 80% and 95% of pre-pandemic levels.
If public transport remains a ‘last resort’ for journeys we could even see car traffic surpassing pre-lockdown levels.
One of the upsides of the lockdown was the increase in walking and cycling, but it’s hard to see active travel remaining an attractive option for many as traffic returns to our streets and winter beckons.
The challenge, then, is vast; but so too is the opportunity. Transport policy will have to adapt to ensure social, environmental and economic benefits are secured following the pandemic.