HomeCoronavirus crisisLet’s grab the chance while we can to move to healthier travel

Let’s grab the chance while we can to move to healthier travel


This post is by Greg Marsden, professor of transport governance at the University of Leeds and co-Investigator at the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS). The original piece can be found on the CREDS blog

The lockdowns and social distancing measures in place across much of the globe have been both hugely socially challenging and revealing, with images of clear skies over Delhi, goats roaming the town centre of Llandudno and streets empty of cars. The scale of the human impact on the environment is laid bare and the prospect of different future policy pathways to lower carbon, and cleaner and healthier lifestyles is tantalising. The number of commentaries on how this is an opportunity to seize is quite overwhelming.

But other past ‘opportunities’ have been squandered or, worse still, used to bake in higher carbon policies. Recently published research on previous disruptions underlines the importance of action now if we are to see real positive changes from this crisis.

Changing travel patterns are an opportunity
People have stopped travelling as much as they used to because they have been told to and, when they do have to travel, they have been asked to in a different way. Many of the activities they would have been taking part in have stopped and so the absence of reasons to travel has played a part in drops of 60 per cent in traffic levels. Will the economy and travel ‘bounce back’? Will people turn away from public transport? Will people carry on cycling more? Will they drive more to insulate themselves against the risks of infection?

What we know is that there is no ‘bounce back’, nor a ‘return to normal’. Once people live through an event like this it becomes part of their experience set. They make adaptations to continue to live their daily lives as best they can. The work I have conducted on previous disruptions suggests that, during these times, individuals tend to accentuate things they have previously done, but perhaps not embedded, as a regular means of doing things (eg online shopping, a Skype call to family members, working from home, exercising in the vicinity). It is the shift to many people doing these activities which creates innovations (eg increasing online delivery capacity, whole organisations working from home and investments in new IT infrastructure to make that possible, online ‘pubs’ and Google ‘classrooms’).

We know from the London Olympics, where an intensive period of around two months of travel demand reduction strategies were put in place, that the way organisations respond afterwards matters to how much change is embedded. At an individual level, research found that around six per cent of people at that time said they would keep at least one of their behavioural changes. However, this was so much lower than the more than 50 per cent of people who made changes over those two months. Why? Almost all of the businesses (including government departments) went back to working as they had before. No consolidation of deliveries and ordering, no walking maps for accessing the nearest meetings, no change in working from home protocols. To really embed change requires an understanding of the combined institutional and citizen response.

The pathway out of the current crisis is going to require a negotiated and staged release of social distancing measures. There will be an extended period where the interactions between virtual substitution, walking and cycling and going back to the car will play out. This could be achieved in ways which support businesses and people as well as delivering better carbon, air quality and health outcomes. Some really great examples of pop up cycle and walking infrastructure, to aid social distancing and change how we view streets, are coming to the fore and are now getting support from national and local government.

Negative outcomes are plausible too
However, we should be cautious of just looking at the opportunity. There are also threats to the climate policy agenda. Immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis, faced with a contracting economy and a reduction in travel demand, governments around the world reached for infrastructure-based fiscal stimulus packages. Those parts of government (national and local) charged with thinking about what next for the economy this time could equally well focus on ‘let’s get people travelling again’ demand stimulation, rather than rethinking the approach. Some examples to consider:

  • Funding is already ring-fenced for the Road Investment Strategy and the government has committed to a massive infrastructure investment plan. It will be easier to carry on with this than to look again at whether or not we will need to travel more.
  • Town centres will be struggling after the restrictions are eased. One response could be to lower or scrap parking fees. But this does not do enough to address the underlying shift in how we are shopping and would miss the opportunity to re-purpose town centres.
  • Some places have very limited provision for cycling and walking. If the space needed to support social distancing safely on foot and bike is not made now, with concerns about spreading the virus and when traffic levels are so low, then when will be a good time? This will be a critical bellwether of scope for future rapid action on climate commitments in transport.
  • Running a public transport system as we used to, but with capacity limited to 25 per cent for some time to come, will inevitably be scrutinised. But what about the voices wanting support for the car industry and arguments that a more individualised car based system is more resilient and ‘what people want’? This is a risk to the medium term potential to cut carbon by changing travel modes, even if public transport seems, in the short run, to be more about providing better access than cutting carbon.

Changing the way we do things
Effecting change requires imagination and people to do it, it may also require new funding, rewriting regulations or changing how things have always been done. Most of it requires saying that we are going to stop doing some things, and that can generate opposition. All of which explains why it is not inevitable that the chance to change for the better will be taken. Things can also very quickly move on and become old news as other lobbies and framings emerge. The next few weeks will be a chance to set us on a different, lower carbon pathway. The CREDS project on accelerating the Decarbonisation of Mobility will be doing its bit to make the arguments nationally and locally on the case for real change.

[Photo source: Spsmiller, Wikimedia]

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

%d bloggers like this: