We need a post-2020 vision

There is so much we can't know about what lies ahead. Our world is being changed by Covid-19. In due course, but we don't know when, restrictions will be eased and travel and transport will re-start. Surviving transport businesses will emerge, no doubt bruised by the experience. But how different will consumer behaviour be?

Certainly, commuting volumes, when travel restrictions end, are likely to re-start at lower levels. Office-based workers who have been home-working might largely continue that practice. Indeed, with IT support systems in place, many businesses will find it attractive to reel back on office provision.

But there are huge numbers of workers across the service, construction and manufacturing sectors for whom work-at-home never was an option. They commute too. After a period of social distancing, perhaps with lingering fears of infections recurring, will people accept a return to travelling at pre-virus levels of congestion (4 people per m² standing on trains – instead of the c12 m² each person needs to remain 'socially distant')?

Meanwhile, our cities are quiet, traffic levels have fallen massively and as a result air quality has improved dramatically. And this is being noticed. People are walking and cycling rather than driving – for which, of course, they'd need a very good reason right now. The virus is horrible, but there is a Covid-19 dividend in terms of travel behaviour change.

Government will need to be very careful in releasing travel restrictions. When it comes to that stage, should it consider trying to lock-in some of the environmental dividend? Maybe then would be the right time to raise fuel tax. Should it then also be looking at a large-scale programme to encourage travel behaviour change? As Professor Jillian Anable explained to the Transport Knowledge Hub workshop on the theme of "Decarbonising Transport" on Tuesday 3rd March, behaviour change must be at the heart of our response to the climate crisis. Technological fixes just won't get us there.

This point was reinforced in last week's DfT consultation documentation ahead of its transport decarbonisation strategy, Decarbonising transport: setting the challenge. This explains how Government intends to work with others in developing a plan for the sector, in the context of the 2050 net zero target. It shows how the contribution needed from transport to meet the 5th carbon budget set in in 2017 (covering the period out to 2032) won't be met by current policies and funded measures (which are listed at length). And as for the 2050 target, if that is taken to mean net zero transport emissions, that will be missed by a country mile. Or in Government-speak: "we would expect to make significant further emissions reductions as we move towards 2050".

There is also a spatial policy dimension to consider. Our city centres may be empty today, but it's a truism that their very existence, scale and complexity depends on mass transit. Large cities drive economic growth and their agglomeration benefits have been presumed to justify further expansion, including of their transport networks. The retail, leisure and cultural cores, commercial offices, municipal buildings, universities and streets, now largely empty, can all be re-opened and re-vitalised – as before, based on people using public transport. This will need a serious urban recovery programme. If, instead, we fall back on the lure of edge city low-cost development, people will be travelling largely by car again. Development planning controls will need reinforcing if we are to avoid making the challenge of transport decarbonisation even harder.

When travel restrictions are lifted, personal savings will be depleted, and as any economist will tell you, the Treasury's emergency measures – worthy as they are – will unfortunately introduce inflationary pressures. We have not experienced these for decades. Bold spending plans announced in the recent budget will come under question.

Insofar as capital programmes are based on the need for extra capacity in our national transport systems, Covid-19 and its attendant economic costs, by suppressing demand, will have weakened investment cases. But there is a compensating change that will off-set this effect: capacity projects such as HS2 have delivery timescales that will have slipped years. These two factors – lower demand and later delivery – have opposing impacts on the benefit calculus.

The likely pace of travel demand recovery is hard to judge. But we know that the duration of demand build-up periods when transport services start from scratch typically take 3-5 years – and that provides some sort of guide.

When the virus is overcome, policy attention will return to the major policy challenge of decarbonisation. The virus, with its downwards impact on transport demand – now the biggest carbon generating sector in the UK – will have bought a little time for this endeavour, perhaps a year or two. 2020 will be a helpful downward blip in our national carbon emissions trajectory.

Jim Steer, Director, Steer