Payback and the Pandemic

How prepared was the transport sector for the Covid-19 pandemic and has it responded as expected? Many organisations have been busy in recent weeks shoring up their finances. For some of the organisations I have been helping it is encouraging that by far the most important bridging funding has come from customers choosing to defer fulfilment of their purchases to some uncertain time in the future. Getting investment from customers when it matters has benefits far greater than short term revenue. Customers opting, not for refunds, but to be able to rely on future services are investing more than money.

Looking back over some of the more significant planning projects over the last 20 years, the word pandemic often appears in sections about resilience in a global economy. The planning projects predict that safety nets in testing times can have a positive influence on competitive advantage in the years ahead. When systems were tested who did people find they could rely on?

Planning projects assess resilience in terms of a capability to: ensure accurate data is communicated to all with a potential role in adapting delivery or mitigating effects, deliver arrangements to draw from emergency resources and activate redundancy in the system, deploy clear control and management structures, and last but not least have system designs able to adapt and recover to a state that is stronger and safer than before.

Good communication depends on good data. The government's pandemic preparedness strategy envisaged that people and businesses would be able to make judgements about appropriate travel. However, it quickly became clear in early March that the data being published by government was largely blind to the spread of the virus. It took until mid April before a clearer picture emerged across the country from analysts piecing together diverse datasets from a wide range of data sources, such as the analysis by Chris Giles of the Financial Times.

Data analysts frustrated with the government data commented on social media that it looked like the government had only thought about data needs for epidemiological use rather than a wider pandemic response. Most people and businesses were not treating patients but planning how to keep going during the crisis. In the absence of good data, many opportunities were missed, not least on how to deploy appropriate transport and protective resources in the locations where they were most needed.

Under stress, transport systems have revealed their strengths and weaknesses more acutely. This will affect how each part of the system emerges into the new post-pandemic economy and society. Bus and rail operators have become highly dependent on government funding to keep essential services for key workers running. Many passengers will never return, and it could be some time before viable post-pandemic service patterns can be identified. Transitional funding arrangements will be needed capable of adapting and responding to opportunities in the post pandemic economy and society. The public stake in passenger transport looks set to be very much greater in the months and years ahead.

Community and collaborative transport sectors have been able to listen and respond to customer needs quickly. Community transport providers have been instrumental in maintaining food supplies to vulnerable households and technology giants like Amazon and Uber Eats, reliant on gig economy transport workers, have been able to scale their activities far faster than their competitors. Emerging from the pandemic, these operators will be able to build on these achievements with a larger share of UK transport.

Perhaps the most revealing strength of transport's ability to respond to a pandemic has been that every part of the system has been able to get support. Some businesses have turned to their customers to encourage them to buy more for their future needs, whilst others have turned to suppliers to allow them to defer payments. As each part of the system transitions to the new normal the people and organisations that offered backing will look for their reward.

The strengthening of business relationships with customers, suppliers and government which took place in a few weeks in March and April could end up defining the future direction of many enterprises. History tells us that at least part of the reward for government will be a bigger share of the economy within the public sector. That has implications for many transport operators that need to think through their transition to a future way of working, including many struggling airlines. Similarly, customers that have backed businesses by accepting credit notes rather than refunds can be expected to look for new ways of working with more customer responsive services.

Overall, the transport sector has proved that its resilience planning has largely worked. However, weak data, particularly the data needed for joint working between the transport and health sectors, impaired the ability of everyone to respond. Healthcare is driven by brilliant customer care with a loyalty from citizens that transport can only dream about. However, Covid-19 has exposed that the healthcare system has not focused as it could have done on its data, transport and logistics.

Transport and healthcare joint working problems drift from decade to decade in the 'too difficult' basket. If the UK transport sector could help a customer centric organisation like the NHS to use spatial data to better manage its transport and logistics, perhaps healthcare can come out of the pandemic stronger too. An open platform with data on trips, inventories, capacities, costs and performance would be a good start towards more efficient, effective and collaborative success.