The New ‘New Normal’

We are in a new normal now. And, hopefully, this will end after a few months. But when we go "back to normal" we won't go back to the old normal. Instead we'll enter a new 'new normal' where around 20% of us may travel less by public transport until a vaccine is found. Of those opting not to travel by public transport almost half say they'd avoid doing so for 'fear of getting ill.

It's likely there will be an overall reduction in the use of all transport modes including public transport until the economy recovers. Furthermore, as much as 17% of full and part time workers believe they will work from home more - the pandemic has shown us that we can be productive at home, especially when the kids go back to school.

For SYSTRA, it's in our DNA to explore and understand the pandemic's potential impact on our travel behaviour and future working patterns. Part of what we do and have always done, is to capture travel data in order to model future scenarios, our models have helped transport organisations and governments at all levels plan and make informed decisions.

Between 8th - 14th April 2020, we surveyed over 1500 representative adult residents across the UK. We wanted to find out: how life will change in terms of our day-to-day travel; how many more of us will opt to work from home; and, how will the way we conduct our day-to-day activities change? The findings for the period immediately after lockdown are stark in terms of public transport usage.

A Call to Action

Our analysis gives an early warning to transport authorities and operators throughout the UK to start preparing for the immediate post lockdown - with the long term in mind. Soon travel restrictions will start to ease and gradually lift for most of us. However, our predicted 20% fall in public transport use in towns and cities means that that every public transport operator will need to work hard to win passengers back. Operators must take action to reassure nervous passengers through clearly communicating their increased hygiene regimes, new driver responsibilities and inevitably shared passenger responsibilities that minimise the short-term impact of the fear of contracting the virus. Messaging should be informative and also give the reasons why the new measures are in place. In fact, a National campaign may be required to help rebuild passenger confidence in public transport, and of course operators must enhance any National campaign with relevant local details.

There is real danger that the car is favoured over public transport as a means of social distancing as 14% of those surveyed say they will seek an alternative mode of travel. Policy makers and public transport operators must adapt and create new approaches and partnerships to win back their passengers. In towns and cities this may require developing new collaborative relationships with large employers, attractions, venues or regular events so that future services match need. In rural areas, bus operators can consider more demand responsive services that go the extra mile to understand their passengers' exact needs - far more than they have ever done.

Working from Home

Travel patterns will not go back to normal in the short term, that's a given. The commute to work will be very different, as people realise that they have more choice about where and how they work and how they get to work and go about their daily business.

The pandemic lockdown has forced those who can work from home to do so. Swathes of office workers have had to quickly learn new tools to meet, manage and support their colleagues online. Widespread use of video conferencing software is here to stay.

Our survey suggests that around 17% of people will work from home more post the pandemic to improve their work/life balance and save time and costs of the commute. Previous research suggests that staff productivity for those that can adapt fully to working at home may increase by 15% if they do so at least part of the time. 67% told us that virtual meetings will replace some or all business trips and meetings. Although there will always be a need to meet people face to face, there are likely to be significantly fewer work based trips undertaken in the post pandemic world.

Behavioural psychologists tell us that once behaviour has become embedded - even if reluctantly at first - the new way of doing things quickly becomes habit and if perceived as better and more efficient, then the dye is cast.

As many of us have realised that working from home requires a different mindset, we still need to meet our colleagues online and delegate to get the job done. Ultimately the success of working from home rests with the individual not to be tempted by the fridge or binge watching the 'Killing Eve' boxset.

The prize for working more from home means that we may end up having more time for leisure, for education, for visiting friends and family and for nature. And some of these actives require transport to get us there. New opportunities will become apparent as our new habits take shape.

The Climate Emergency has not been Cancelled

There is no doubt that the pandemic has opened up different ways of working for many, but if people start rejecting public transport over the car for work and leisure trips this will be a massive step in the wrong direction and if the climate emergency is to be avoided strategies to increase the use of low carbon modes for those of us still travelling will become more important. Our climate emergency has not been cancelled.

Yet, there's evidence that people and transport authorities are embracing the World Health Organisation's advice to consider riding a bike and walking where feasible, as it aids social distancing and keeps us physically active. In fact, Paris is busy creating 650km of 'pop up' cycle lanes for lockdown and post lockdown travel. Milan is doing similar for key workers. In the UK, many local authorities have already decided to cater for the upturn of cycling and walking post pandemic. In fact more local authorities throughout the UK could give the go-ahead to their list of 'shovel ready' small-scale traffic regulation orders (TROs), even on a temporary basis, that shift road space to sustainable modes to encourage healthy lifestyles. The jury of public opinion can then decide if they should remain for good.

Covid-19 has raised a broader debate on the future of transport in our towns and cities. Like climate change it demands a global response. This situation provides the UK the opportunity to build on the changes that have been forced upon us and develop a different future for local transport where we are able to address climate change, air quality and economic development aspirations whilst having sustainable (economic and environmental) and efficient transport systems.