Passenger needs: confidence and flexibility

01 April 2021

Transport habits have changed. We don’t know how much, and we don’t know exactly when they might change back, if ever. How can governments and public transport providers navigate this uncertain territory?

Over the last eleven months we have conducted over 70,000 interviews with transport users. All of this work was summarised in a recent report Travel during Covid-19: key lessons for 2021 and beyond. Two themes come out strongly. Firstly, the need, as travel re-starts, to rebuild and reinforce confidence. Secondly, given ongoing uncertainty with roadmap, vaccines, variants and home-based working the need to build in flexibility to both service provision and retailing.

There are encouraging signs in both areas. Public transport has responded well to the crisis enabling millions of essential trips despite huge challenges. As we know from our insight work almost nine out of 10 of those travelling now are feeling safe. The ability to social distance, people wearing face coverings and cleanliness underpin this. Timetables – especially for buses – have flexed and been more agile to respond to circumstances and demand.

Governments are now in strong positions to drive further change. The huge pivot from rail franchises, through emergency and recovery measures agreements, to National Rail Contracts is underway. Governments will hopefully be able to more easily agree changes as markets evolve in the next year – leisure travel may bounce back more strongly first.

The new Bus Strategy will allow the Department for Transport in England to push, outside of London, for closer working between local authorities and operators. It will also allow the DfT to mandate passenger benefits such as better timetable co-operation and cross operator ticketing.

On rail, timetables can now change four times a year. More short-term flexing may be possible. The industry is working to allow booking a year ahead on long distance services, matching what the airlines offer.

Ticket conditions have been and could be altered more to match what the market is doing – there may be much less of a morning commuter peak, for example. Current reservation only rail services may become available on a walk-up basis again. More flexible season tickets are coming – hopefully the first step of many to reform rail retailing.

This is all positive as, in future, passengers may have much choice about whether to travel. They also might have more choice about how and when to travel. So, the need to build on this new consumer focus is more important than ever. Having the right product at the right price will be key. Moving from buying a ticket to paying for travel is another barrier taken away.

Confidence can be reinforced on a daily basis – information and communication will be more important than ever. Those travelling will tell others about the experience. Friends and family remain a key source of trustworthy information for many. This can be backed up by Government and industry marketing. Information on how busy services have been and are expected to be on the day will also help. Social media pictures will, no doubt, highlight perceived problem areas. These concerns will need to be addressed and put into context quickly. The reality is social distancing will at times be nigh on impossible as passenger numbers rise. Passengers need straight talking from governments and transport providers about what they should expect.

Public transport has a future. We just don’t know at the moment quite what that future will be. So, let’s continue to build confidence and flexibility.

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