As working patterns change is it time to rethink public transport priorities?

This blog is by Anna Johnston research and policy officer at the Women’s Budget Group.

Buses, trains, tubes, cycle lanes and roads are once again filling up. Whilst we’re all reconnecting with the world around us, there will be few that are clamouring to resume the busy, loud, often sweaty and anger inducing daily commute. Yet, potentially permanent changes to working patterns beg the questions: does the standard commute exist anymore and could this be a pivotal moment to rethink transport?

According to the Department for Transport, the three most common reasons to use public transport before the pandemic were leisure (26 per cent), shopping (19 per cent) then commuting (15 per cent). So, even when it was expected for many to travel to their place of work, commuting was still a less common reason to use public transport than the simple pleasure of going to the cinema or buying your groceries.

Transport planning prioritises commuters
Yet, whether you use public transport or not, you will be aware that infrastructure and investment are heavily skewed towards the commute. There’s a clear prioritisation of longer journeys into a city centre over shorter, local ones. Such ‘radial’ journeys tend to happen by rail, with almost half of all rail travel being for commuting. Our rail system is also prohibitively expensive for many.

It is interesting to note, although perhaps unsurprising due to differences in work patterns and income, that men make 40 per cent more rail trips than women in England. Investing in longer distance travel to and from work is obviously valuable and necessary but, as it’s only the third most common travel purpose, what is everyone else doing?

Local and ‘orbital’ journeys for purposes other than commuting, often made on buses, are not prioritised in transport planning. One hundred and thirty four million miles of bus coverage have been cut across the UK between 2008 and 2018. Women make a third more bus journeys than men, are the majority of passengers making short journeys and are more likely to ‘trip-chain’ (a series of short trips linked together). This is partly due to greater caring responsibilities (for example, taking children to school) and domestic work (picking up the groceries, running errands).

Buses are essential to avoid rural transport ‘deserts’
For people living in rural areas that don’t commute into city centres and who don’t have their own vehicles bus services are essential. Yet rural areas are also neglected in public transport planning, with patchy access and vast areas of public transport ‘deserts’. A recent report found that a reduction in rural bus services negatively impacted 46 per cent of respondents trying to access essential services, 37 per cent accessing health services and 19 per cent accessing mental health services.

The overall effect of inadequate bus routes means it can often be safer, quicker and less burdensome to use a car or taxi. But women, black and minority ethnic people, the disabled and those on lower incomes are less likely to hold a driving licence and own a car and are, therefore, subject to greater social and spatial isolation.

There’s strong evidence that communities with poor access to food, education, healthcare, entertainment and jobs have worse outcomes in terms of health, employment and education than the national average, and even than better connected deprived areas.

As the climate emergency rises up the political agenda, a decarbonised, affordable and accessible public transport system will be a vital part of any plan to limit emissions. Transport is responsible for 27 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and 34 per cent of nitrogen oxide air pollution, with almost two thirds of those emissions coming from private car travel. Whilst electric cars are part of the solution, reliance on them papers over many cracks, including the requirement to significantly decrease the overall number of cars on the road if we are to meet UK emissions targets.

Access to public transport should be a universal right
Effective reorganisation of travel must go beyond technological fixes, such as the switch to electric cars. Transformational change is required that recognises access to public transport as a universal basic right, enabling everyone to move around in a safe, healthy and affordable way. Unless the barriers to using public transport and active travel options are addressed and reversed, car usage will continue to rise.

Strengthening bus services will be a crucial part of this strategy. CPRE has calculated that the government could deliver a bus service to every village, every hour from 6am to midnight, across England for £2.7 billion annually. Whilst this seems like a large sum, funding could be redirected from current road building schemes to cover it.

Creating safer, more accessible walking and cycling routes will also open up active travel options to more people. This could encourage more women, people of colour, disabled and older people to cycle. To make sure different sectors of society are taken into account, transport decision making should involve representative groups, at both the local and national level.

Commuting is important, but other types of travel have been disproportionately under-served by transport planners. As patterns of travel change, everyone’s travel needs should be considered to create a sustainable and inclusive decarbonised public transport system for the future.

Read the Women’s Budget Group’s latest report Inclusive and green transport. The Women’s Budget Group’s Feminist Green New Deal is a collaboration with the Women’s Environmental Network.

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