Public transport – feeling safe and ‘in control’?

04 September 2020

The return to school for many more children this week was a key milestone, but so far it doesn’t seem there’s been a dramatic overnight increase in travel to work.

Our latest Travel during Covid-19 survey shows over the summer period while travel for leisure reasons has continued to grow, travel to work has been fairly static, with still only around one in three say they travelled to or from their place of work. More trains will be running again from next week with the next step-up in the timetable for most operators. It remains to be seen if we will see a similar step-up in commuter numbers. If the much discussed ‘return to the office’ is to eventually materialise then people will need to feel safe using public transport.

Continuing perceptions gap

Our survey has been highlighting the gap between the views and experience of those people actually using public transport and the perceptions of those who aren’t. The latest survey continues the theme, finding around eight in 10 passengers were satisfied overall with their journey by bus or train and around nine in 10 train passengers and around eight in 10 bus passengers say they felt safe.

On the other hand, among those who haven’t travelled by train or bus in the last week only around a half say they’d feel safe travelling on a train, and around four in 10 on a bus. There are signs that attitudes may be slowly shifting with an improvement in this measure of perceived safety in recent weeks. However, almost one in four in our survey still say they have been avoiding public transport and they don’t feel safe using it.

Why do people say they wouldn’t feel safe?

Why do four in 10 of those who haven’t used public transport in the last seven days think it is less safe than other settings like shops, restaurants and pubs, while only one in 10 think it is safer? We’ve explored perceptions of safety on public transport in more depth with new analysis of our Covid-19 tracker and insight from rail passengers in our Transport User Community.

The comparisons made by members of our Transport User Community between public transport and restaurants and pubs when assessing ‘relative risk’ are revealing. They have enjoyed eating out in recent weeks and have been impressed with the all-round concern and attention paid to customers and specific measures like contact tracing, disposable menus, visible cleaning efforts and distancing between tables.

Similar themes emerged from new in-depth analysis of our Covid-19 tracker, finding among the substantial minority with concerns about public transport, key concerns and perceptions included that:

  • other passengers can’t be trusted to follow ‘the rules’ on wearing face coverings and social distancing and not enough is being done to ensure compliance
  • passengers have no control once onboard a bus or train, being ‘trapped’ in an enclosed space with limited ventilation or realistic opportunity to leave if they feel unsafe
  • based on their previous experience public transport just isn’t clean enough, contrasted unfavourably with places such as restaurants where they see visible, frequent cleaning by staff.

Here’s what a few members of our community had to say:

“I do not feel safe using public transport because there are still people not wearing masks, and not being told to.”

“Public transport usually isn’t very clean and I feel it is a place that I would be most likely to catch the coronavirus.”

“People…are in a very enclosed space without fresh air and often can’t maintain a good distance. Ventilation on public transport is poor and vehicles are not cleaned regularly/properly.”

“Because there’s no escaping public transport once you’re on and it’s moving. In shops, restaurants & pubs you can assess the risk according to how busy it is and how many are breaching the rules by not wearing a face covering & you are then able to walk away if the risk feels high.”

These perceptions will be very hard for bus and train operators to change. We have called for incentives – including better rail value fares and a ‘Head Out to Help Out’ offer which is being considered in London – to remove barriers to giving public transport another try. However, it’s clear incentives alone won’t be enough for people with these fundamental safety concerns. They’re looking for firm assurances about safety measures and a sense of accountability and commitment they will be delivered. Can public transport operators do enough to instil confidence? Our insight shows it will need more effort – and more visible communications about what’s already been done – on issues like cleaning, ventilation and intervening to manage the behaviour of other passengers.

One way transport operators could seek to provide this sense of ‘control’, at least over the ability for passengers to social distance, is to make it compulsory to pre-book space onboard the bus or train. We asked rail passengers on our Transport User Community for their views and found that in the context of Covid-19 this holds some appeal. But they had significant practical concerns about how it could possibly work on commuter routes, how the policy could be enforced and how people who require flexibility could cope. Compulsory pre-booking could be divisive and simply make public transport still less appealing as an option. One alternative is to go further in providing reliable information about how busy specific services are expected to be; we’re exploring this with our Transport User Community soon.

Information key to put users in control

Our latest insight shows once again the importance to transport users and – critically now – potential transport users of information and reassurance to make them feel safer and in control. As we’ve said here before, Transport Focus has undertaken reviews of information provided by transport providers on their websites, including bus, rail and motorway service areas and have been successful in encouraging them to make changes where the information isn’t clear. We’ve now published a best practice guide to draw together our key messages and provide examples for transport operators to emulate.

Our latest findings should encourage public transport operators to consider again, ‘Is our website clear and convincing enough to make potential passengers feel it’s safe to travel?’.

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