New rules? Public transport and social distancing etiquette

08 June 2021

You may have recently been on your first journey since the last lockdown or have taken tentative steps back to office working and noticed public transport feels a little different once again. My long-distance train trip last week to visit family in Scotland was fine (as was the drive back).

However, colleagues, friends and social media posts show some trains are really filling up – at what would normally be quieter times. This is borne out by our Travel during Covid-19 survey finding more than two in five passengers travelling in the last week saying the bus or train was busier than they expected.

People are grateful for any advance info they can get on how busy services will be.

Mandatory reservations on longer-distance journeys are also causing some issues – high advertised prices and trains showing full, while Off Peak tickets are still available in some cases – a difficult balance that June 21 changes will hopefully solve.

It’s great news more people are returning to public transport, but it’s very important they know what to expect. In recent weeks we’ve seen the bus industry allow all forward-facing seats to be used on buses in England, significantly increasing capacity onboard, but meaning you might need to sit next to someone outside your ‘bubble’.

Our Travel during Covid-19 survey suggests this change has so far gone relatively smoothly, with almost nine in 10 passengers still feeling safe, and more than six in 10 aware of these changes (next set of results is out on Friday). As the railway gets busier too passengers need clarity about how much space they can expect onboard and how likely it is that social distancing will be possible.

I read a Sunday Times (£) piece  recently that asked whether social distancing side-eye, bags on seats and passive aggressive judgement if someone tries to sit next to you is now the norm. As as we slowly return to life beyond lockdown and less restrictions, do we need a new etiquette guide?

We have been speaking to people to understand their attitudes to social distancing on public transport. We’ve been asking how they would feel if they had to sit next to someone. If face coverings were still mandatory, would it be okay to reduce social distancing? Would people still want to wear face coverings even after restrictions are lifted? Are attitudes towards public transport different to other public places such as restaurants, gyms, shops and pubs?

There are some difficult, often emotive questions, but vital to the next stage of our recovery. We’ll be feeding our findings into the forthcoming Government review.

We are still some way from commonplace commuter journeys of old, packed in like sardines and pressed up against someone else’s sweaty armpit. Although we are hearing of the odd leisure journey where things are a bit more crammed.

But will people prefer to face the discomfort of a slightly crowded bus or train, or choose to let a service go by and wait for the next one? Over the summer we will continue to track people’s attitudes, as services get busier and people continue to adapt and adjust.

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