How compatible is public transport and social distancing?

07 May 2020

The lockdown continues but thoughts are inevitably turning to what the future might hold. After weeks of being told not to go out many people will understandably be nervous when restrictions are eventually relaxed. They need to know what to expect from their transport provider, but they will also need to know what they have to do in order to travel safely. Our recent blog began to explore these issues, setting out many of the questions that passengers will have as they prepare to travel again.

New research, published today, gives us a better insight into some of these issues. This is the first wave of Transport Focus’s research into travel behaviour and attitudes. Over 2000 people were asked about their current and future travel. This will be repeated weekly and will allow us to track how behaviour and experiences change over the coming months.

We will learn more in the next few weeks as we begin to build up trends, but two themes are already beginning to emerge. The first, not surprisingly, is all about safety and what is being done to make travel as safe as possible.

There was strong support for social distancing to be in place, for masks to be worn and for hand sanitiser to be available on public transport. It will be incredibly important for governments and industry to reassure people on these issues. This advice must be clear and consistent, but it must also be realistic – as much as they might want it, people understand that it will be impossible to give absolute guarantees.

Supermarkets are doing all they can to make it safe for shoppers, but does anyone think they can eliminate all risks? No one can really promise that transport operators can maintain strict social distancing on every service, every day – something that it hasn’t been possible to do on some services being provided for key workers during the lockdown. Ultimately it will require a partnership between passenger and operator – with operators setting out what they will provide and passengers being clear how they can help make it work.

If you travel by road there will be fewer concerns about social distancing, but people may still need reassurance in other areas. For instance, how people will be kept apart at motorway services and at petrol pumps, and how congestion will be managed.

The second theme concerns future travel patterns. People are saying that post-lockdown they will drive, cycle and walk more rather than use public transport. Younger people in particular will look to active travel options, as will people in London, but there is a clear sign that driving will increase across all regions. Coupled with this is an expectation that people will work from home more often in future, with London again leading the pack.

Just under a quarter of people said they’d be happy travelling by public transport as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. Even among people who regularly travelled by bus and train pre-virus only about a third said they’d be happy to immediately resume.

In the short-term this could actually help to manage demand on public transport and make it easier to maintain social distancing. In the medium to longer-term, however, it raises the spectre of more congestion and polluted roads as well as posing serious questions for public transport providers – have traditional travel patterns changed for ever and how will they draw people back onto public transport? Some will surround safety and the reassurance needed from governments and operators, but some may well require more fundamental reform – for instance new fares that better match the mixed work from home and office environment of the future.

More will become clearer as governments begin to outline plans to relax the lockdown. We will use the results from this ongoing research to ensure that transport users’ views and concerns are at the heart of the decisions being made.

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