Cover up for a long winter?

25 September 2020

The weather has cooled and the nights suddenly seem to be drawing in. The news has been increasingly gloomy too. Covid-19 case numbers have been rising quickly and local lockdowns have been spreading. This has culminated in the announcements this week about new restrictions that may last six months in England and tighter restrictions in Scotland and Wales too.

Transport wasn’t one of the focuses of these new restrictions. However, whether it’s the 10pm curfew for pubs and other hospitality venues, the ban on visiting other households in Scotland, or the First Minister of Wales asking people to “think very carefully about who they meet and whether they need to travel”, all these steps might be expected to dampen demand.

Perhaps the biggest long-term impact is likely to be the encouragement once again for people in England to work from home if they can, as has been the case since March in Scotland and Wales. While those in jobs which require them to be in the workplace will of course continue to travel, this still represents a big shift.

Even before this week’s announcements our latest Travel during Covid-19 survey had found a growing proportion saying they expect to work from home more often in future, up to almost six in 10. The millions of workers that have become accustomed to the routine of Zoom meetings look likely to have a further six months still to go. A daunting prospect or a welcome further reprieve from the commute? Either way it seems likely this will further embed the structural changes in how and where many people work.

Our Travel during Covid-19 survey found a marked fall in the proportion of regular train passengers expecting to travel in the next month, down from 52 per cent the previous week to just 39 per cent. Another signal that people had already begun to be ‘spooked’ by the rising case numbers and anticipation of further restrictions.

Members of our Transport User Community have also reported a fear of a ‘second wave’. Rising case numbers, coupled with a sense that some passengers still aren’t ‘getting the message’ on face coverings and social distancing have caused some members of the community to wonder whether bus travel is still a viable option for them at the moment. While they reported that other passengers may not adhere to face covering and social distancing rules as much as they would like, the consensus from those who have been travelling regularly is that bus travel is ‘not that bad’.

“I’d advise anyone that hasn’t been travelling to try and make the effort to get out, if you can. Do what makes you feel safe, but at least try and get out and about.” Female, 44, South East

Meanwhile, for the rail passengers in our community the increased case numbers have renewed and reinforced many fears around safety just at the point when they were beginning to consider a return to rail. Misuse (or non-use) of face coverings is a persistent issue, the expectation is that train operators’ enforcement of the rules would have ramped up in line with the prospect of a second wave. While some seasoned passengers remain confident and have not noticed a change in the quality or safety of the journey, it’s chastening that community members have gone as far as to leave their jobs due to concerns around the commute.

“It surprises me how reluctant to travel our community is – maybe the difference with me is that I just can’t work from home – I have to work, and I’ve changed my mindset accordingly.” Female, 53, North West

“Unfortunately I’ve had to resign from my job as it’s just too far to travel – two buses, two overground trains, two tubes and two DLRs for the round trip. I’m heartbroken to do it but I can’t take the risk of travelling during these times, especially as COVID infections are on the rise.” Female, 50, South East

This insight highlights again that more needs to be done to drive up face covering compliance, without disadvantaging those who are exempt. Efforts already made to enhance cleaning regimes must be made more visible to provide further reassurance to passengers – and potential passengers – they can feel safe and in control. It feels like we could be in for a long winter. The more transport operators can continue to ensure those who are travelling are able to share positive experiences with others, the better for the long-term recovery of public transport.

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