Travel demand back on track?

A few days ago, I stood, with some apprehension, on my local railway station platform waiting for the train to trundle to a stop and the doors to open. Over my shoulder a small rucksack with my laptop – I might be able to get a few useful catch-up minutes of work between my home station and Brighton, I thought.

The train arrived, pretty much on time and the doors slid open, facing me with a choice: skip my pre-booked appointment for my second Astra-Zeneca vaccine application or squeeze onto this very, very crowded train.

It was so reminiscent of commuting it almost made me nostalgic for the olden days. The London to Brighton line has long been prey to the international community visiting these shores and determined to make the best of the capital, the world city, and Brighton and the seaside, or just trying to get to or from Gatwick Airport. Hence suited commuters often found themselves rubbing shoulders with holiday-clad revellers who had no regard for the Commuters' Code (i.e. no talking, no whistling, no humming, and, ideally, no eating). And here I was with my rucksack, soberly clad, jammed amongst the weekend revellers mostly wearing, as my mother would have put it, not quite enough.

The return from Brighton was much less busy. A full 12 car train took the place of a crammed, short-formation 8 car, and as I was travelling in the early afternoon the busiest trains were those still tipping their southbound passengers into Brighton to enjoy the sunshine. How did I feel about a daily return to this sort of experience, I wondered?

Trotting down the road the next morning with the household dog I was, not for the first time, possibly not for the first time of mention in this blog, tempted to wave at the driver of the bus that swishes past our house intermittently throughout the day, almost, but not quite, on an hourly schedule. Not that I am routinely tempted to wave at bus drivers, fine people though they are, but because they must, on this route, be so lonely. Yes, of course, lockdown has curtailed many of the local trips we might have made, but these are services that I would routinely see carrying the driver and not much more than air well before most of us had ever heard of Wuhan.

Why muse on all this right now? Because we spotted last week that we had the first full set of Department for Transport traffic statistics showing that, for one day at least, weekday traffic levels for cars, vans and trucks were all above 100% of the last pre-covid count. Several of my local authority chums have been saying of late that the traffic is back, and that's well before the much-anticipated and hoped-for 21-June relaxation of the remaining covid restrictions.

Of course readers of these pieces will know that the volume of traffic is just one element of the Venn diagram that we need to contemplate, the others being time and place. So it is interesting to sit the DfT stats alongside those still being published weekly on the Transport Technology Forum website [ – slide 7], which appear to show that not only is traffic coming back, but so are our all-too-familiar peaks, morning and evening.

Many of us speculated that the revolution in home (or remote) working throughout the first and second periods of lockdown might be the start of a fundamental sea-change in the travel patterns of office-based workers. Some of us thought that this might be a positive, in the round, for transport, though not so much if your job was in a city-centre sandwich shop. I still think it could be, but then I am one of those who has the positive advantage of a bit of space and not-too-shabby IT at home and, if anything, a growing reluctance to re-engage with a world of standing on crowded trains (or even sitting on trains so poorly designed that I cannot get my laptop screen opened sufficiently to get on with some productive work whilst seated).

I say all of this because there is still time for the many Transport Times readers in positions of power and influence to reflect on what we have seen and experienced over the last, incredibly hard, 15 months or so, and create an environment where we are allowed to think laterally about how the future could or should look. We have the Williams-Shapps plan for the railway and the Bus Back Better strategy, both of which envisage a far greater role for local government and far less reliance on the market to shape service delivery.

But if the result is still standing room only on short formation trains on Sundays and subsidised bus services running in spite of the passenger numbers rather than because of them through the week then we'll have lost a major opportunity to rethink and re-focus the role that public transport can really play as we build back and level up, leaving something of a gap – a travel vacuum if you will.

Meantime the tide of road traffic will be poised to rise – because traffic, like nature it seems (according to Aristotle), abhors a vacuum.

Steve Gooding is Director of the The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring Limited, a charity registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Charity Number 1002705. Registered address: 89–91 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5HS