More freedoms, but how will people get around?

02 June 2020

A big change for many of us this week as the lockdown restrictions have been eased – to varying extent – across the UK. In England some children have returned from school and groups of up to six people are now permitted to meet outside so long as they remain socially distanced. So, what impact has this had on transport? It seems so far, not much. Some public transport operators are reporting small increases in passengers, but there’s been no surge of people returning to their old ways. While our Covid-19 tracker survey has confirmed data showing traffic on the roads slowly but steadily increasing in recent weeks – and many appear to have hit the roads to take advantage of the recent good weather – the message to avoid public transport seems to have really hit home.

All eyes in the transport industry are now on the 15 June when more non-essential shops will reopen in England. This may be the significant change, with not only shop workers needing to travel to work, but also – if there’s to be any point reopening – many shoppers needing to travel too. The clear message from Government has so far been that public transport is only there for ‘essential’ journeys. This hasn’t seemed to result in many disputes so far, with the odd exception like this unfortunate clash between staff and a golfer.

Presumably a trip to browse the shops – a popular leisure activity for many – doesn’t currently count as essential? Will it be possible soon to soften the message to encourage people back to public transport for these trips? If not, and any change must be led by what’s safe, then there is a growing risk that in some places those without cars will be increasingly left out of the reboot of our economy and social lives. Car showrooms were permitted to reopen yesterday too. I wonder how many people are considering a trip to buy a car, or perhaps a second or third for their household, to fill a gap where they used to rely on public transport? Probably not many yet, but people’s need for personal mobility will surely force some sooner rather than later.

Another change in progress is the introduction of ‘track and trace’ measures to try to contain the virus. This is expected to be bolstered later this month with an NHS app currently being piloted. One of the ‘go-to’ examples used by commentators explaining how this could work seems to be public transport. It makes sense – as we all try to avoid close contact as best we can – it’s probably possible right now for many of us to recall and name all the people we’ve been near to for more than a fleeting moment. However, as public transport gets busier this may become one of the main exceptions. The perceived risk of a ‘ping’ on your phone telling you to self-isolate for 14 days could provide a very practical reason to continue to avoid public transport in the coming months.

Some operators are working hard to try to provide reassurance to passengers who need their services. The bus company Transdev Blazefield is one example of an operator that’s been promoting its efforts to help passengers know what to expect, including its intensive cleaning regimes and digital tools to show how busy its buses are. This currently relies on crowdsourcing and passengers helping each other by updating the website. First Bus have picked up on passengers’ need to know how much space is on the bus too. Their app now shows ‘available seats’ in real time. These operators are responding quickly to their passengers’ need for information to provide confidence. We’ll be checking the information provided by transport operators and will report back on rail operators’ progress and best practice later this week.

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