How will we reinvent the way we travel when cities reopen for business?

by | Apr 23, 2020

Nationwide lockdowns have brought with them significant reductions in air pollution but what will be the long-term effects on the way we travel and the climate?


The impact of lockdowns around the world on reducing congestion and air pollution has been widely reported. With millions of people working, shopping and generally staying at home, we’re seeing instantly what life would be like once we take a break from our vehicle-dominant lifestyles.

Our skylines are clearer, air quality indices are positive and our roads are so quiet you can almost hear a pin drop. Photographic evidence is circulating on social media of cities without smog and residents in north India are astounded at catching a glimpse of the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years.

However, all these things could be short-lived as the world begins to recover from coronavirus and normality begins to take shape. Once we open our doors, will we go back to where we were? Or even worse, inadvertently increase pollution in an attempt to make up lost time?

By that point the travel sector could already be looking very different as months of lockdown have the potential to change people’s perceptions and behaviours forever. How long will the coronavirus effect on mobility last and how can some of the learnings from this time become an opportunity to prompt long term changes?


Potential changes in mobility patterns


An increase in remote working

According to Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Report, the UK is seeing a 57% reduction in those travelling to work. Over the last few weeks, the world has been thrown into an enormous, enforced working from home trial. Companies are beginning to realise what is possible. Employees are recognising the benefits of the additional hours that can be added to the day when the daily commute is removed. Now we’ve had a taste for how it could work, will we be so keen to return to how we were or will employees demand to work from home more frequently? As people’s confidence grows in remote meeting and conferencing tools, the impact on train travel could also be affected with people choosing to meet and work remotely instead leading to a negative impact on our already struggling train companies.


A shift from public transport to the car

One of the less desirable aspects is the potential that demand for public transport numbers may actually reduce in favour of the car. Where once the priority was on increasing public transport to move people out of cars, the Government is now telling people not to use public transport. The concern is that this trend could continue. In the initial post-lockdown stages at least, we may see a customer mind-set that views personal vehicles as a safer option and it could well be a challenge to get people back onto what is often a very crowded public transport system. If car journeys increase, what can we do in the longer term to ensure drivers see the benefits of choosing a zero emission mode of transport?


A change in shopping habits

Will shopping centres and high streets recover? The shop-local movement has certainly gained favour over the last few weeks. Consumers have been introduced to the benefits of walking to their local shops as well as focussing on home deliveries. Will we continue to shop online, reducing individual travel but increasing deliveries? And if so, how do we make sure that home delivery services do their bit to reduce their carbon emissions if their demand increases?


A trend in walking and cycling

Cities around the world are currently making temporary changes to neighbourhood roads to accommodate space for walkers and cyclists. In helping to improve safety and making it easier to stick to social distancing, speed limits are being lowered and some streets are being shut to cars altogether. Many towns and cities are looking at how they can turn these initiatives into lasting changes. In Milan, for example, the city has announced that 22 miles of streets will be transformed into cycling and walking routes once restrictions are lifted. As many more people take-up cycling and walking in an attempt to make the most of their daily exercise, could this be an opportunity to refashion our streets away from the car?


Less overseas travel

It may take some time for our borders to open and we will certainly see some changes in our approach to air and sea travel. It is anticipated that passenger numbers will initially be low when restrictions are lifted with people choosing not to travel. The rise in people’s video conferencing abilities will no doubt also impact on business travel.


A heightened awareness of air pollution

This lockdown experience has highlighted that our travel choices have been a major cause of air pollution and has provided the opportunity for us all to this witness first hand. In addition, there is now evidence to suggest that COVID-19 has hit hardest in areas where air pollution is at its worst. With scientists stressing the need for cleaner air to help reduce COVID-19 deaths, will this translate into changes in personal choice? The real challenge for mobility policy now is how do we ensure that voters recognise the impact on their own personal behaviour and are inspired to make travel choices for social, environmental and health benefits.


How do we avoid going back to the norm?


The world’s response to this global issue has had major unintended consequences but ones that have given us a unique opportunity to stop, learn and change for the better. We are being provided with a chance to introduce better urban mobility solutions. What we need now is data and evidence to ensure that our transport decision makers can follow up with clean air policies and incentives that take some positives from this experience.

This is where our Universities have a role to play. The UKCRIC Urban Infrastructure observatory network allows us to capture, map, monitor and test real urban infrastructure systems for the long term. By using these transport and emissions observatories with mountains of big data sets to hand, recorded before, during and after COVID-19, we can begin to quantify the impacts of the virus on policy and actions introduced to mitigate climate change. The data we collect from now must be available for wider use to inform policy.

Our next challenge is to use this experience to ensure that mobility policies are joined up and fixed long-term, targeting actions on cities and users where we can have the most effect. Observatories should report on the reopening of the economy through quantitative and qualitative data, covering areas such as pollution levels, economy impacts, technology viability and human behaviour.

COVID-19 has literally made us hit the stop button and re-appraise many things. What is not yet known is the unintended consequences on individual and corporate behaviour and whether we will be brave enough to seize the opportunity to drive forward change faster for the benefit of future generations.





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