Smart Transport

Transformative times have arrived!

Smart Transport chairman Stephen Joseph reflects on the ways in which Covid-19 has impacted transport and which changes he expects to become more permanent

What a difference a few months makes. We're now in an unimaginably distant pre-Covid-19 world, in which we could freely meet and talk to each other, streets were full and there was a problem of overcrowding on public transport.

That, at least, is still with us, but in such a different context – how to stop buses, trams and trains being overwhelmed with people while still maintaining social distancing. 

The virus has upended almost everything, and transport is no exception. 

The aviation industry is on life support, with bailouts, some with conditions attached, keeping it aloft. 

Road traffic is massively down, and cycling and walking up, while public transport use is also well down. Car sales have collapsed to their lowest point for 70 years. 

However, as many commentators have pointed out, locking down was, in some ways, the easy part.

The real questions are now arising on routes out of the lockdown and – importantly for Smart Transport – what the legacy will be. 

One clear immediate issue is about increased travel with social distancing.

Public transport is going to find this difficult – capacity may be as low as 15% of normal, especially once the need for queueing at stations/stops and interchanges is considered.

Enforcement of social distancing will have to be by consent and social norms – it will not be possible for transport staff or police to enforce this. 

So, a generation of messaging from the Government and local authorities encouraging people to use public transport, has had to go into reverse.

While there are differences between the four nations in the UK on coronavirus messaging, they are united in advising people to avoid public transport unless they have to use it. 

What is going to happen instead?

Clearly, many people have discovered the delights of Zoom, Webex etc., and are working from home.

This seems likely to continue, and many of these people are in white-collar jobs that (at least in the cities) might involve train and tram travel. 

It’s less clear what will happen to those in manufacturing and construction jobs, for whom being on-site is an absolute pre-requisite.

Many of these will commute by car; those that don’t have their own cars will have to look for other options. This might mean public transport (especially if their employer can arrange shifts so their
travel is outside peak hours) or, potentially, sharing cars. 

But, there are new options coming on to the horizon.

Vancouver-based tech start-up, SpareLabs, has been using data to design micro-transit services to bring key workers to work, incorporating tracking and tracing of those on the vehicles to allow follow up if any develop the virus. 

At the other end, Beate Kubitz, a contributor to Smart Transport, has set up an e-cargo-bike delivery service in her Pennine village, linking small businesses with customers. 

A bus operator in Kent has turned his network over to demand-responsive services, linking key workers, but also those without cars from villages needing to get to shops etc.

All this suggests employers might be able to use smarter transport to get employees to work, even away from the big cities. 

Read Stephen Joseph's full article on transformative times from Smart Transport Journal


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