Transport, social distancing and face coverings – straight talking needed

12 June 2020

The biggest lockdown restriction change so far will take place on Monday as many non-essential shops can reopen in England. This means more travel – many will walk or use a car. Some will cycle. More people will use public transport. Just how much more travel and by what means of transport remains to be seen.

We will carry out our 2000 strong, representative GB wide survey this weekend and the weekend after, so we will have an insight into what has happened and how attitudes are shifting.

New Transport Focus analysis shows the proportion of people who think face coverings should be a requirement on public transport has been consistently above 50 per cent since week one of the survey and increased to 67 per cent in the latest week six results. Clearly face coverings make people feel safer, but they remain an emotive and divisive issue as comments in our survey illustrate:

“Everyone should be made to wear a mask or they will not be allowed to travel.”

“There will be issues with people who don’t cover their face, and it will cause friction between passengers. I don’t want to wear a face mask, but I understand that it may help to protect others…”

Our latest research published earlier this week: How are transport users feeling about returning to travelling? found the ability to social distance and the wearing of face coverings were top of mind when it came to building confidence. There was a real sense these new aspects of ‘transport etiquette’ need to be underpinned by clear communication, procedures and potentially, enforcement.

Wearing a face covering on public transport is to be mandatory in England from June 15. Enforcement presents difficulties, at the time of writing we still don’t know exactly what legal mechanisms will be used or penalties that passengers may face. In the long run, as with other safety issues, such as smoking on public transport or seat belt use in cars, peer pressure will be the most effective spur. Rather than rush to enforcement mechanisms a gradual ‘engage, explain, encourage’ approach should be used first, but at some point, some ‘bite’ will be needed.

This must take into account that some people cannot wear a mask for medical reasons. Many disabled people will face particular challenges – for instance those who need to read lips to supplement poor hearing will find communication with staff or other passengers very difficult. Those who are unable to wear a mask could feel uncomfortable or face comments from other passengers. Our survey comments illustrate how people’s emotions may run high and that people will need to think carefully before they rush to challenge fellow passengers:

“The directive to wear face masks will put many people off. Some people will find it frightening, others will not be able to wear masks due to health conditions such as asthma. Deaf people who lip read will also struggle to be around lots of people in masks.”

“People will be agitated/aggressive towards people not wearing face masks or sitting next to them…”

Being able to social distance remains passengers’ main concern. It’s helpful that bus and rail apps and journey planners are starting to indicate which services are busiest, but pinch points will present challenges. Most buses outside London have only one door, at the front. The need to keep a distance could slow passengers getting on and off on buses and trains and eventually make running a punctual service more difficult. The reality is staying two metres apart will be nigh on impossible in much of the transport system as numbers rise. There needs to be straight talking from governments and transport providers about what passengers might expect to encounter.

Current government advice states: ‘There may be situations where you can’t keep a suitable distance from people, for example when boarding or alighting, on busier services, at busier times of day and when walking through interchanges. In these cases you should avoid physical contact, try to face away from other people, and keep the time you spend near others as short as possible.’

Time for more clarity then and an intense focus on what operators will do to minimise the risk and how passengers can play their part?

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