On my one permitted exercise-plus-dog-walk of the day today I found myself striding – ok – sauntering past my local railway station and it struck me that I was doing so for the first time since the 1980s without being the owner of a railway season ticket.
I started my rail commuting life much earlier – in the (very) early 1970s – living, as I did, two stations up the line from my secondary school. A brief respite for the university years, and then a commuter ever since, albeit with a brief spell of motorcycling in from the London suburbs.
I mention this because it is not retirement - though I do have to keep reminding people that I haven't retired - but the C19 lockdown that has confined me to quarters. The thing it has left me contemplating is whether, as some have asserted, I will find that after more than goodness knows how many days working from home that it has become my 'new normal'? Or whether my travel will spring back into its previous routine, just as it did after the 2012 Olympics?
Of course, the 20-or-so days of the Olympics, when we London office workers were urged to change our travel patterns and work from home where possible, was but the blink of an eye compared with the current circumstance. That said, I do remember people musing on whether the change would stick; whether the culture of 'presenteeism' would have been broken for good.
But then I can remember people telling me that, first, the waistcoat and, then, the necktie had ceased to be part of smart male attire at least ten years ago, and both turned out to be wrong – thank you Gareth Southgate.
Making change stick is a tough business.
Do we enjoy commuting?
Instinctively I can hear you shouting 'No!'. And so far I've only been talking about trains. Who could gain pleasure commuting by car, as millions do every day around the country? The traffic is heaving, delays are frequent, other drivers are a pain.
For many the daily commute is not there to be enjoyed but endured, the price they pay for getting a job. And quite a price too, for the commuters reliant on public transport in a country that seems mightily disinclined to subsidise fares.
So let us cast our minds forward to the moment when, as I fervently hope, we are coming out on the far side of coronavirus, and, businesses are re-opening and hiring rather than firing. What makes us think that our national travel patterns won't snap back? True, not all the jobs will be the same as before, in nature or location. But in the round?
Which brings me to my favourite question, for which, as ever, I must give credit to others for the formulation: "What would have to be true?"
The thing is, we are still relatively new into this crisis and already I see speculation about how things might never be the same again. Which is true. They could, for example, get worse.
But the thing I'm interested in considering is whether we in the transport profession – which I assume is the self-selecting readership of the TT blogs – have any collective sense of what we would wish the 'new normal' to be, and, if so, whether we might make use of at least some of the coming weeks of social distancing, home working and video conferencing to have a bit of a debate about not what we would like to happen, but what would have to be true for it to happen, and so deliver us from the other transport-related evils that, momentarily, have faded from the headlines.
The fact is that I had grown very, very accustomed to my rail commute. At the hour I travelled in the morning I had no trouble getting a seat and getting 40 minutes of uninterrupted working time. Coming home was a bit more of a trial, but no real hardship. And, work aside, there's a reason I've got my motorcycle battery on trickle charge for the lockdown – I can't wait to get out and about on it later this year, see friends and visit places that would simply not be feasible on public transport or my pushbike.
I shall close with a brief muse on pedantry.
As I continued my stroll with the dog I observed many brightly coloured rainbows displayed in windows. The fact that most – not all – had the colour spectrum the wrong way around irked me. But, you'll be pleased to hear, grumpy old sod though I may be, that I could see it was the thought that counted, and that ringing the doorbell to explain ROYGBIV to a bemused householder was unlikely to make them or their children them feel any better, whereas a cheerful thumbs up was the order of the day.
So should I similarly sit quietly and accept that the term 'mode shift' doesn't really mean 'mode shift' but 'almost-certainly-an-entirely-different-trip-pattern'?
I fret more about this one than the rainbows, because I think we need to be clear and I think we need to be honest. If it turns out that the best possible 'new normal' is not about making more-or-less the same trips but in different ways, shouldn't we be much more up front about that, and, by-the-by, be ready to explain why that would be better?
The window of opportunity for that public debate is going to open as we start to feel like we're getting on top of coronavirus, but it might not stay open for long.
How ready are you feeling?