Covid-19 has already changed travel behaviours for the majority of the UK. There is no doubt that it will continue to change travel behaviours for the short and medium term, and with announcements on transport investments strategies over the last week, it is looking more likely that Covid-19 will change travel behaviours indefinitely.

The government has announced a £2billion package to boost cycling and walking and support the transport network[i] as it looks to adapt and recover from the impact of social distancing. The package includes:

  • largest ever boost for cyclists and pedestrians
  • emergency bike lanes and streets will help support transport network
  • trials of rental e-scooters to be brought forward to increase green transport options
  • government working with leading tech developers to reduce crowding on public transport

Short term measures announced:

  • £250 million emergency active travel fund
  • Pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions and bus-only corridors
  • 150 miles of protected cycle track in Manchester
  • Bike Tube for cycling above the tube network in London
  • New statutory guidance telling councils to reallocate road space for significantly increased numbers of cyclists and pedestrians
  • Some streets becoming bike and bus only within towns and cities across the country
  • Side streets closed to through traffic to create low-traffic neighbourhoods
  • Vouchers issued for cycle repairs, to encourage people to use bikes that they already own
  • E-scooter trials 

Medium term measures:

  • the creation of a national cycling and walking commissioner and inspectorate
  • higher standards for permanent infrastructure across England
  • getting GPs to prescribe cycling and exercise
  • creating a long-term budget for cycling and walking similar to what happens for roads

What could be the possible impact on travel behaviours?

These measures are significant and the biggest change to transport infrastructure for decades. As well as the financial commitment to see these changes happen quickly, we’re also seeing effort being poured into encouraging behaviour that will change peoples transport behaviour and embrace more green solutions such as cycling, walking and e-scooters. Whilst some of these schemes had been announced before Covid-19, they are being accelerated and boosted with some initiatives launching in just a couple of weeks’ time.

Government transport data from 9th May[ii] shows that rail usage is down to 4%, buses at 13% and motor vehicle usage at 49% of pre-pandemic levels. Whilst these are likely short-term changes in light of the current lockdown measures in place, these will change in the coming weeks, but are unlikely to go back to the 100% levels seen before the crisis.

How could this impact on planning?

The plan outlined by the government over the last couple of weeks shows that there is more emphasis on cycling and walking. They will be trying to strike a fine balance between trying to put in place measures that make it safe for people to commute to work, whilst ensuring that individual car usage doesn’t go up significantly and impact on long-term transport planning.

We can expect to see short-term initiatives such as pop up cycling lanes, that if proven to be successful and wanted by the local communities, might stay long term. Transport planning for new developments will be challenging at this time, because even with measures announced, the real unknown is whether communities will change their behaviour long term.

In the short term until any long-term changes are evidenced, we would expect Local Highway Authorities to pursue a conservative approach to development management with assumptions on trip numbers and mode choice remaining unchanged.  However, we would expect to see more emphasis on Travel Plans and measures to improve uptake of active travel modes (walking & cycling). 

The early indicators which may affect future highway assessment will become clear when results of the 2021 Census are published. Data published as part of the Census is used extensively within Transport Assessments to understand mode choice and journey assignment.  With the 2021 Census due very soon it will be interesting to see how Covid-19 has affect the results of the Census and future studies of highway impact. 

What is the long-term outlook?

The expectation from the transport industry is that the current crisis will have a long-term impact on peoples travel behaviours and that there will be less use of public transport until social distancing measures are relaxed[iii]. For the medium term, its likely that public transport usage will be significantly down with SYSTRA expecting a 27% drop in rail usage across the UK[iv].

For transport planning, we need to keep looking at the latest trends and changes in travel behaviour. Using other crises in the past, such as the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull and its impact on air travel and the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001; we can start to understand how people’s behaviours change and adapt after different events. Although, Covid-19 is unlike any other past event and so we will all be learning and adapting to a new normal for some time.