Back to work?

17 July 2020

So, are we all set to return to work and hop on public transport on Monday?

Today’s announcement by the Prime Minister has helped provide further clarity and consistency on who can travel – points we raised in our letter to the Government last week.

From today, in England, the message is clear: you can now use public transport, but you must still wear a face covering unless exempt, follow the rules on social distancing and should avoid the busiest times if you can. This is being supported by communications to reassure passengers about the efforts on cleaning, and social distancing that continue to be made by transport operators to ensure that passengers are kept safe.

As the economy reopens and people start thinking about travelling again, it is important to be clear that you can now use public transport even if you have an alternative. However, big hurdles remain before there is a mass return to office working, as our research shows: people have got used to working from home, still have concerns about safety and the price might still put them off.

There are signs in Transport Focus’s latest covid-19 travel survey out today that more journeys were being made even before today’s announcement – for instance, those saying they are travelling for reasons such as eating out or visiting attractions has increased from 15 per cent to 23 per cent. But it seems as if these are being made by car. Road use continues to grow week on week while use of public transport remains limited.

Many people are still keeping clear of public transport. Half the people surveyed said that they had no reason to use public transport in the previous week, while a quarter were following government advice to avoid it. What is noticeable, however, is that just over a third (35 per cent) weren’t using it because they didn’t feel safe doing so – and that this had increased from the previous week (30 per cent).

It’s hardly surprising that those who never really used public transport before the lockdown are not doing so now. So this week we wanted to take a closer look at those who used to be ‘regulars’ – what do they think about returning to travel?

The answers make interesting, and worrying, reading. As mentioned above, 35 per cent overall said they hadn’t used public transport in the last week because they didn’t feel safe. When just looking at those who used to be regular users, we found the figure is much higher at 47 per cent. In addition, over 4 in 10 (43 per cent) of those who were regular users disagreed with the statement ‘I have no concerns about using public transport, if I have the need to do so’.

The following quotes from the survey illustrate some of these concerns:

“I would be very nervous using public transport at the present time.”

“I think I will feel very vulnerable although I am sure transport providers will take special measures. I don’t think everyone will wear masks and that makes me apprehensive.”

“I’m not planning to use public transport as I don’t need to at the moment. I think it will be quite quiet but not a relaxing experience as people will be nervous.”

We are also seeing similar concerns expressed through our new online ‘Rail Community’. This reinforces the scale of the challenge ahead – if a business cannot recover its core market it will struggle.

Some of this concern is wider than just transport – it is about giving people confidence and purpose to get out of doors in the first instance, something recognised by the new ‘eat out to help out’ scheme for the hospitality sector. Some of it is about messaging (after being told for months to avoid public transport its hardly surprising if people have); while some is about opportunity (not commuting to work or few places open to visit). But some is far less tangible and is more about perception – it’s about people feeling confident and safe.

So what can be done? At some point, the public transport sector will have to look at winning back its customers. It won’t be able to rely on commuters returning to work in their droves. In our latest rail passenger satisfaction survey we found that 40 per cent of rail commuters did not have an alternative means of travel available. On bus the figure (via our Bus Passenger Survey) is even higher with 49 per cent not having an alternative travel option. However, the work-from-home revolution generated by Covid-19 has now given many of these captive commuters an escape route. People on our new rail community are also questioning whether commuting will ever be the same again. So there will be much more reliance on leisure and discretionary travel than before.

This will make it even more important that negative perceptions are challenged. We know that those currently using public transport are reasonably satisfied with the service they receive and tend to have a higher opinion of public transport than those not travelling. So one of the options may be some form of marketing campaign or incentive scheme that persuades people to give public transport a go – one of the best ways of challenging perceptions is by giving people a chance to see what it is really like.

The following quote is from someone who had recently travelled by train:

“The journey was good. The compartments were regularly cleaned and sanitised and social distancing were practiced.”

The skill will be in balancing any incentives against capacity constraints. Social distancing is likely to be required for some time so it will require very careful judgement – generating overcrowding will simply reinforce negative perceptions. It feels like this could be a long hard slog.

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