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Face coverings: more to do to rebuild confidence

Over the 12 weeks of Transport Focus’s Travel during Covid-19 survey there has been a steady increase in people travelling on the roads (six in 10 had driven in the last week). While public transport use has increased slightly since lockdown it remains very low, with just five per cent of respondents reporting using a bus or three per cent a train (outside London). People are returning to travel, but relatively few are returning to public transport.

The Prime Minister’s announcement last week provided welcome clarification on the advice on using public transport in England. You can now use public transport, but you must still wear a face covering unless exempt, follow the rules on social distancing and should avoid the busiest times if you can. In our latest survey one in five said Government advice to avoid public transport was the reason they hadn’t used public transport. While travel messaging is changing at a different pace across the UK, it remains to be seen how many people will now actually notice and return to public transport any time soon.

The Prime Minister also signalled the end of UK Government advice to work from home from August. But it is becoming clear that for many – employers as well as employees – this enforced homeworking experiment has proven a success and will lead to lasting change. For many participants in our new ‘rail community’ no longer having to commute is the one upside during a difficult period when they’ve been faced with anxieties about work, finances and family. Their initial feedback confirms a strong appetite for ‘flexi-seasons’ or ‘carnets’ that can offer better value for money journeys.

Especially concerning for the future of public transport is that people continue to say they have been avoiding public transport because of safety concerns. Three in 10 ‘don’t feel safe using public transport at the moment’ and four in 10 disagree with the statement ‘I have few concerns about using public transport now if I have the need to do so’. Those who used to be regular public transport users before the lockdown are no less concerned. However, the aggregated results of the last three weeks of the Covid-19 travel survey show of those actually making a journey now around eight in 10 bus and train passengers were satisfied with their journey overall. There is a gap between the views of those who are travelling by public transport – and finding the experience generally ‘OK’ – and those who are not.

Compliance with rules on face coverings on public transport seems to be patchy and is a key, recurring gripe across all our passenger insight. While seven in 10 people say they will feel safer using public transport with passengers wearing face coverings, of those travelling, around one in four are dissatisfied with the number of people wearing face coverings when they made a journey. There are important exemptions for those who are unable to wear a face covering, but for some, not wearing face coverings has become a new and especially unwelcome form of ‘anti-social behaviour’.

“I used the tram when going to work I was not happy with not many people wearing face masks and there was no hand sanitiser.”

“The train was quite busy and there were a few people talking really loudly and not wearing masks.”

“Posters clearly telling people where to enter the bus, asking us to wear face coverings, keep our distance and not sit near the driver… I just wish everyone including the driver would wear their mask.”

From Monday face coverings will be required on public transport in Wales, as well as England and Scotland. A requirement to wear face coverings in shops (in Scotland and from today in England) may help shift behaviour. To help rebuild passengers’ confidence it’s vital everyone who can wear a face covering plays their part and the transport industry does more to drive up compliance too.

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