sustainable transport

Covid-19, sustainable transport and personal mobility: watershed moment or pothole?

By Dr David Jarvis

Widely reported Government data suggest that as a result of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, road journeys have plunged by at least 70%, with rail and air journeys down by more than 90%. The fall in road journeys during the Covid-19 lockdown means that the number of vehicles using the UK’s road network each day is at a level not seen for some 65 years.

Much is being written about the climate and clean air benefits wrought from these enforced changes in transport behaviour. Academic and media commentators alike cite significant carbon savings as a result of fewer miles being driven; drops in transport related air pollutants recorded in towns and cities across the country, pollutants which are linked directly to heart and lung diseases and to premature death; and the undoubted, but as yet unrecorded reduction in road traffic accidents, injuries and deaths. At the same time, families are said to be benefiting from the work-life balance afforded by new home working arrangements.

Such previously unimagined reductions in transport use, and realisation of the positive benefits thereof, are being proclaimed by some as the start of a climate conscious readjustment in personal mobility and commuting behaviours. Behaviours it is argued, that will be embedded through an acceptance by businesses and employees alike that many more jobs than previously acknowledged can be performed remotely ‘from home’ utilising the latest information and communications technologies.

But is this positive appraisal of the current situation wholly justified, or are there as yet unacknowledged dangers ahead? Rather than heralding the dawn of a more sustainable transport future, could the UK’s ‘lockdown’ trigger behaviours amongst business and employees that work against a drive to reduce individual car journey’s and the decarbonisation of the UK’s vehicle fleet?

When the lockdown ends how might our travel choices be affected by the experiences of the pandemic? What will the new normal look like? In examining these questions, there are three key issues to consider: What has been the true extent of home working during the lockdown; What will the post Covid-19 economy look like and how might this affect investment confidence and risk appetite amongst both business and consumers; and how will consumers’ view mass transit systems in a post-pandemic world?

In considering the first of these points it is important to recognise that homeworking, both prior to and during the lockdown, has been highly selective by industrial sector and occupational level. Many parts of the economy, including hospitality, off-line retailing and manufacturing offer relatively few opportunities for people to work from home. Even in those knowledge driven predominantly service industries where homeworking is viable, it tends to be limited to higher occupational levels, rather than more routinised or clerical functions.

As such, many employees currently ‘#staying at home’ will in all probability return to pre-lockdown commuting patterns once current restrictions are eased. Others, who have been given homeworking opportunities for the first time, may also find these arrangements withdrawn by employers seeking to increase productivity as a counter to post-pandemic financial stress. It will, therefore, be interesting to assess whether Covid-19 restrictions have any discernible longer-term impact on homeworking in the UK relative to 2019 levels, 5.2% according to ONS, and whether any significant saving in commuter miles is sustained.

The second factor which challenges the notion of Covid-19 as a transport watershed moment, is the likelihood that economic conditions post-lockdown will be very different to those prior to the pandemic. Significant economic contraction and increased unemployment levels seem inevitable. In such a dramatically transformed context, how will the investment decisions of car makers and transport providers be impacted? In an economy where such businesses and organisations are fighting for survival, it could be argued that they will focus on maximising returns from existing products and services at the expense of investments in new low carbon and sustainable transport technologies. For example, the electrification plans of major carmakers could be put back by several years, with new EVs reaching the market far more slowly than was anticipated prior to the pandemic.

At the same time, in a contracting economy, the spectre of rising unemployment may see consumers less willing to make large or risky purchases, such as vehicles powered in ways with which they’re unfamiliar. In such circumstances cheaper, tried and tested petrol or diesel options are likely to win out. From both a supply and demand perspective, therefore, a Covid-19 driven economic crisis has the potential to stall momentum gained over recent years in the development, production and consumer acceptance of new forms of vehicle propulsion, and the climate and environmental gains which go with them.

Thirdly, it is worth considering how perceptions of infection risk and social distancing practices will influence people’s use of mass transit public transport systems in a post pandemic world. In all likelihood, the experience of the pandemic will mean many are less willing to utilise forms of transport where they are forced to mix at close quarters with others. If correct, this will mean the use of buses, trams, trains and airlines is unlikely to return quickly to pre-pandemic levels.

Such circumstances would further jeopardise the viability of private businesses operating in these markets, and perhaps place at risk future public investments, especially in a recessionary environment. The flipside of supressed demand for mass-transit options might be rising use of personal vehicles, where users feel safely isolated from others and infection risks. In effect, this could increase the overall number of journeys and miles driven by private cars, and the overall environmental and climate impact of the UKs vehicle fleet relative to pre-pandemic levels.

Whilst the environmental benefits of restricted transport use under the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown are unquestionable, it is complacent to imagine that such changes in behaviour and the benefits they afford are locked in and here to stay. Indeed, the three factors highlighted here could each set back the efforts of recent years to mitigate the environmental impacts of personal mobility, whether through alternative means of powering personal transport options, or by encouraging greater use of mass transit systems. Guarding against such complacency is vital if the UK is to remain on course to deliver its sustainable transport ambitions by 2032 as planned.