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Returning to travel – what happens now?

How are transport users feeling about returning to travelling?

While Transport Focus’s weekly Coronavirus travel surveys are providing us valuable, representative, insight, we wanted to dig deeper. So in May we conducted in-depth telephone interviews with 25 people. This wasn’t designed to be a statistical piece of research – it set out to identify people’s attitudes to travel in future and find out a bit more about their concerns, expectations and intentions.

Uncertainty sums up how a lot of them are feeling. People are missing normal life, seeing friends and family and going about their everyday activities. Yet at the same time there is anxiety around starting to do lots of things again, including using the bus or train. Just as a visit to a supermarket is different now, they expect they’ll need to learn how using public transport will be different too.

So they’re looking for reassurance – the ability to social distance and the wearing of face coverings were top of mind when it came to building confidence. But there was a real sense of these needing to be underpinned by clear procedures, communication and potentially, enforcement.

We found differing views on the issue of face coverings – some in favour and some sceptical. However, all said they would wear one if they had to, but not all would do so without prompting – suggesting that there is comfort and certainty sometimes in being told what to do.

Since the interviews, Government has announced the wearing of face coverings will be mandatory on public transport in England from 15 June. The announcement last week got a lot of coverage, but will it be front and centre in passengers’ minds as they get ready on that Monday morning?

Have you got your mask ready? Ideally operators will give out masks – as Transport for London piloted this week – to help those who haven’t heard or only remember when they arrive at the station or bus stop. This is a big change and needs to be supported by good communications from transport operators to help passengers do their bit. We’ll be continuing our reassurance checks with rail operators and turning our attention to bus operators’ information too.

Passengers also understood the challenges when it comes to managing space on public transport. The current need to social distance means that public transport can carry no more than 20 per cent of the people who used to travel. Not all those using public transport felt that procedures or information were in place to enable them to social distance throughout their journey. They are looking for support and clear guidance from operators to help and to avoid conflict with other passengers.

Will staff prevent passengers boarding if the bus or train is too busy? Or will the bus or train simply not stop? Or in fact, will people be allowed to crowd as much as necessary to make sure everyone gets where they need to be? There are no easy answers, but people need to know. As more people return to travel in the coming weeks passengers need clarity about if and how social distancing could affect their journeys.

Our interviews didn’t just focus on public transport, drivers were also included. They were less concerned about returning to travel, but more aware of hygiene and thinking about using gloves and hand sanitiser when filling up their cars. This heightened concern about cleanliness and a desire for a ‘touch-free’ travel experience was one of the few issues universal to public transport and drivers. Visible improvements to cleanliness and communications about what’s being done can help reassure all transport users.

We’ve all made huge changes and continue to face uncertainty. Government has helped to provide welcome clarity on face coverings. As more retailers open on Monday and we all start to travel more again in the coming weeks the information must keep flowing. The stark reality is it looks like it’s going to be impossible for everybody travelling to keep two metres from everyone else all the time.

Time for clarity then and a focus on what passengers should do to minimise the risk to themselves and others?

You can read the report here.

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