Quiet on the roads, but people are returning

01 July 2020

“Was a bit surprised at how busy the roads were, more than expected, though still fairly quiet overall, and also surprised at the speed and impatience of other drivers in fairly quiet conditions.” Road user

“It was good to start to see even local roads and features again. Strangely, it felt as though I was breaking the law – even though that was not the case.” Road user

Quiet, but sadly not as quiet as it has been; feeling a bit naughty going out even though you are allowed to; and too many people speeding. These are some of the recurring themes in comments from members of our latest report from Transport User Panel about their road journeys in June after the lockdown started to be eased.

This latest report echoes the findings of our weekly Travel during Covid-19 survey. Two-thirds of panel members’ journeys were local, with relatively few long-distance trips. The most frequently expressed sentiment was that the roads were quiet and journeys therefore more pleasant than normal. While traffic was on the rise again, which many thought a shame, few people had experienced any ‘proper’ congestion, apart from the challenge – perhaps temporary – of queues on the roads from the ‘drive thru’ at fast food and coffee outlets!

The reasons our panel members had made a road journey were varied: unsurprisingly, going to a supermarket dominated. A number described how odd it was getting into the car for the first time in three months, and a sense of relief that the engine actually started. Some described that it felt as if you were doing something a bit naughty being out at all, even though it wasn’t. One unfortunate theme was speeding, and the impression that little is being done about it.

“To go to a farm store to click and collect something hard to get and drop off a present. HARD to start the car – only just started. Very odd – first time in a car for a while. Motorway surprisingly busy.” Road user

As is often the case with qualitative studies like this there is rich detail in the feedback provided. The things road users talked about – which were on a mix of journeys on Highways England, Transport for London and local council roads – underlines the need for all highway authorities to get the basics right. And that includes demanding high standards from utilities companies. Reading the comments you get a real feel for the impact on individuals when diversion signing isn’t good; speed limits are in place because the road surface is in poor condition; and when cyclists weave over the road to avoid potholes. Interesting in the context of Transport Focus’s Sort My Sign campaign are comments about signs covered by overgrowth and questions about what ‘road closed’ actually means. Am I stuck for hours? Is it a short diversion? As we continually say, help people understand the impact on them and what they need to do instead.

“No different to normal, really. What I noticed was the branches and leaves and overgrowth generally over the signs, which meant I could not read them.” Road user

“Diversion signage was APPALLING. I ended up at the other end of the closed road, to find that end of it was also closed. I squeezed past the cable laying vehicle, only to find I should have accessed the road from the original end.” Road user

“As there were considerably more cyclists than normal, I was particularly aware of how much they were having to weave over the road to avoid bad pot holes and I thought about how dangerous it would be for cyclists once traffic volumes increase towards more usual levels.” Road user

A few panel members had stopped at motorway services and, for the large part, found social distancing well organised. Some though were frustrated by how little was open, although that may have changed since.

“Have been worried about facilities being open, as public toilets in our local area have been closed, and we weren’t sure whether service stations were fully open.” Road user

It’s clear that some road users are nervous about the virus implications of public spaces – as much information as possible to reassure them, please! Simple things can make a big difference, such as knowing for sure that toilets are open along the road you’ll be using. If your local council has shut its loos, you’re likely to wonder what the situation is on the motorway. For some people, that clarity is the difference between making a journey or not. That’s the sort of information we’ll be looking for when shortly we assess the clarity of information on motorway services websites – you can read more about this in Monday’s blog.

Finally, one (of a number) of panellists raised a smile with the comment “Like driving in the 1970’s all over again, no hold ups, light traffic, a complete joy!” Dig out those flares!

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