This post is by Darren Shirley, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport
Covid-19 changed transport overnight. As travel during lockdown was reduced to essential journeys only, cars and public transport were ditched in favour of walking and cycling, and the reduction in road traffic led to immediate air quality improvements. But, as the need to travel returns, how do we ensure the environment and health advantages of more active travel achieved during lockdown are not lost, especially if public transport use continues to be affected?
Campaign for Better Transport’s latest report sets out to answer this question, describing the scale of the challenge ahead and what needs to be done to address it.
The case for sustainable transport has got stronger
Public transport has taken a battering during the crisis: tube and rail use dropped to less than five per cent of pre-lockdown levels, and bus use dropped to between 10-15 per cent, with profound financial implications for public transport operators. In the longer term, passenger demand is likely to continue to be affected by increased home-working, changing government guidance, public perceptions of public transport’s safety and the expected economic downturn. This will all impact on fare revenue for the foreseeable future.
But we can’t afford to let these issues hold back progress towards sustainable transport. At its lowest point in lockdown, car use dropped to a quarter of its usual level, clearing the air in our towns and cities. It provided further evidence that, to improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions and tackle congestion, we need to reduce the number of cars using our roads. Many UK cities saw a 60 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide concentrations during lockdown. In central London, average nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell by 40 per cent. This was on top of the 44 per cent reduction achieved by the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission Zone before the lockdown.
There are good reasons why we shouldn’t lose these gains in the rush to get back to ‘business as usual’. As we highlight in our report, the argument for sustainable transport has only strengthened as the UK begins the process of recovery. By supporting public transport, walking and cycling, the government can not only help to improve our environment and our health, but also create jobs, tackle social exclusion and help the economy to recover.
Three challenges to getting people back onto trains and buses
In the short term, public transport has been made safer to use and operators are working to the latest health guidance across their networks. Now it should be a priority to restore people’s confidence and reinforce the message that public transport is not only safe, but a better choice than driving.
For the long term, the impact of the pandemic has highlighted three challenges that will need to be addressed to get more people onto public transport:
- poor connectivity and accessibility has left many communities disconnected from the public transport network, as Campaign for Better Transport recently highlighted;
- gaps in capacity and capability at a local authority level, to plan and deliver a good local transport network, coupled with a lack of responsiveness and inertia, are hindering improvements;
- lack of integration between different modes, high fare levels and inflexible services make public transport less attractive and less affordable.
To tackle these challenges, the government will need to direct infrastructure spending towards a more sustainable transport system. Active travel (walking and cycling), bus and electric vehicle infrastructure should be prioritised locally. Network Rail should bring forward its planned investments to enhance the rail network, and disused rail lines and stations should be reopened.
All of these changes will cost more than the government has so far allocated to sustainable transport. In the autumn spending round, it should confirm funding for the next five years alongside a detailed plan for renewal. It should also put in place new ways of raising revenue, such as workplace parking levies and road use charges, to support the shift to sustainable transport.
Fares should be affordable for all
The longstanding issue of affordability in some areas of the rail network would be addressed by reforming fares, fare structures, and ticketing. And, given the impacts of Covid-19 on the economy, the government should cancel the next planned rail fare increase in January 2021. This increase is due to be confirmed next month. Raising rail fares now would be counterproductive, discouraging passengers from returning to rail travel and increasing costs for hard pressed workers.
Public or active transport should be promoted as the first choice for most journeys wherever possible, not just as a way to get the country physically and financially moving again, but because most people want to keep the environmental benefits they saw during lockdown. As the long road to recovery begins, let’s get our means of transport right to make sure it leads to a greener, healthier future.