Slowly does it: how is transport coping with more people on the move?

18 May 2020

As lockdown restrictions are slowly eased and more people are moving around what is happening on the ground? Today’s changes in the number of train, tube and other services running seems to be going OK but it is quite difficult to tell. Mobile phone and other data help and road traffic levels are well tracked, but it is hard to really come to conclusions. Social media provides quick, often visual feedback, but is rarely representative.

Every week we talk to more than 2000 people across Great Britain as they contemplate or get moving. We can supplement  this work with our standing Transport User Panel and we are putting together some ‘communities’ of different types of traveller – commuters, younger people, leisure, road/bus users – so we can probe and track sentiments and behaviours in more detail over the next few months. Our closer working with London TravelWatch is helping to boost the passenger voice in and around London.

We are also working with the operators of motorway service areas to try to ensure as many facilities are open as possible and information about them is easy to find. Highways England is improving its website to help this out.

On public transport we have talked about the partnership between governments, operators and passengers. Governments need to be clear about who should and should not travel. Operators need to clearly set out how they will mark up stations and stops, how they will manage people bunching, social distancing and they should send out a clear message to wear face coverings.

Personally, I think face coverings are going to be controversial. Though as public transport ramps up and feels more crowded there might be pressure from other passengers to wear one.

The first few days of increased travel are, inevitably, going to be a bit messy as we all learn how to behave in this new environment. Adjustments will need to be made – it won’t be a perfect system right away. There will be some images of crowding that look unacceptable. Individuals, assuming they have a choice, are going to have to make their own judgments about the level of risk they will take on.

I worry about those who don’t have a choice. It’s important that those of us who can, leave public transport for those who really must use it.

Things are changing already. Restrictions on concessionary travel are going back on. The London congestion charge is coming back. Train companies are saying some longer distance journeys will be reservation-only. London fares, as part of the deal with government, will be rising. The new normal is emerging day by day. Timetables may need more fundamental change in the longer term to deal with actual travel patterns – the ramp up today is towards an old-world timetable. Public transport may become more expensive overall.

Around here in Tooting more people are out, it’s hard to cross the Red Route roads again and there seem to be more electric scooters and bikes around – electric bikes seem to move at a scary speed! Pedestrians are being pushed out again just when they need more space. The battle for road space has begun in earnest – it will be interesting to see who the long-term winners are and where.

My colleague had to make a trip into central London last week to give blood (something she was strongly encouraged to do as donations rates have suffered as a result of the pandemic). She found the bus slightly busier than expected but the whole of central London was eerily quiet including tube stations and the trains themselves. While relieved when she made it home she did remark on the privilege of seeing London so empty in the sunshine and to experience the public transport network functioning so well in this odd time. Staff and passengers all just seemed to be getting on with things as best they can.

Transport Focus and London TravelWatch are looking at the information operators are putting out. We will pick out and praise good practice while highlighting that which is not up to par. We are monitoring what is happening on the ground as we are all feeling our way forward in a challenging situation. But public transport is there for those that need it and, for now, that’s what’s important.

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