As the restrictions begin to be lifted somewhat, transit will face a series of practical operational and financial challenges. All photos copyright TfL
I had been observing the UK rules of self-isolation and lockdown since late March 2020, as required by the UK government. In fact, the practices of isolation had started much earlier, and by early March, meetings were being curtailed, travel reduced, and there was a heightened sensitivity to hygiene and personal space while travelling within my existence in London. I have partially worked at home for the last eight years as an independent consultant and my work studio space was reconsidered for its use in the longer term. These considerations were in the backdrop of the worrying news originally from China, South Korea, and Japan, but then the more locally acute developing situation in northern Italy.
All of this only marginally prepared me for the full impact on work, social interaction, daily chores, and overall perspective of life of the full lockdown starting in late March. An eventual daily routine developed of minimized weekly trips to the supermarket, video calls with work colleagues and friends, a daily local walk or cycle for exercise, and speaking to local neighbors at a safe distance as the only regular face to face personal contact.
I don’t own a car, and so I don’t usually drive, and stopped using public transport just prior to the lockdown. As a cyclist, I was using my bike for any necessary local trips outside of the immediate neighborhood.
However, for pressing personal reasons, I had to travel to my home country — Canada. This need had been pressing for some months and couldn’t be delayed indefinitely.
An essential trip
Thus, in late April I journeyed across London to Heathrow Airport and onto Canada.
Travel in the COVID-19 world was a challenging situation and provides a range of thoughts for the public transport industry in the post lockdown COVID world.
Firstly, and quite impressively, the public transport network in London had continued to operate during the lockdown as a critical mobility service for the use of essential travelers such as health, social care, and food retail workers. Demand had been suppressed by over 90% as a result. During my journey at 8:30 in the morning, I was amongst three people on a train carriage — with a frequency that had been halved — with perhaps less than 20 on the entire train. Normally, this route would have been standing room only.
The train carriages had also been more thoroughly cleaned in the intervening weeks then I had seen in many years. On the Underground, TfL had introduced public address messages and signage that clearly indicated the need to minimize travel as well as leave two meters (six feet), where possible, between passengers. Demand was slight on the journey and there was never more than a few on each carriage during the journey to the airport, including interchanging in Central London. Throughout the trip, I was wearing a now socially responsible mask and gloves and avoiding touching unnecessary surfaces. While in many ways an emotionally and practically stressful journey, it transpired quite efficiently.
The lockdowns are starting to ease in some corners of the world such as China, and parts of Europe are accepting that the worst of the pandemic may have passed and restrictions can and are starting to be lifted.
The public transport industry, however, now faces a series of practical operational and financial challenges.
While some of the travelers I saw on my journey were seeming to take a brave perspective on the use of the transport system during the lockdown — and I assume that they had taken the personal view that their own travel was necessary, the majority of travelers were using masks, and there was a heightened suspicion of anyone who came to be anywhere near you on the train. No one was truly at ease.
Cities are, generally, populous places. Throughout the COVID period, these populations have remained inside or very local to their homes. The needs of the workplace have also shifted during the crisis and many more workers will now permanently, or for significant periods of time, work from home. This is inevitable, and possibly a positive outcome for work-life balance. However, many will, in theory or practical need, must travel.
Public sensitivity will focus on the need for space, cleanliness, and hygiene. This has already been promoted as a basic need in public health messages. While there will be some inevitability of being less than two meters away from other travelers at some stages of a journey, “crowding” will be a stressful and barely tolerated experience for many.
Exactly what operational model will operators, cities, and public health authorities adopt? If crowding is to be minimized, capacity on many busy systems will be, in effect, reduced. Thus, capacity queuing or user prioritization will need to occur. Thus, should public transport systems be prioritized for certain journeys or types of workers and other trips continue to be suppressed? Will this, however, enable a viable economy in the city to function? These dimensions will need to be considered by every city, but public transport users will also make their own decisions about what they feel is acceptable crowding and proximity in the post-COVID world. For an extended period, this may be something quite different than we have experienced in transport.
As independent financial businesses, as many parts of the industry are in the UK, the model of substantial passenger spacing on existing assets will not work. It will lead to substantially reduced revenue on the same cost base, while demand will continue to be suppressed by public health concerns for an extended period.
The “public” in public transport will become essential to support what should be considered a basic need for a functioning city. In most major cities it is not practical, or desirable, for most mobility to occur, with the existing population density, without the use of an intensive public transport network. The state will have to underwrite much of the operational cost of public transport to an even greater degree than was previously the case for many years to enable urban mobility to occur. Public transport also fosters a “public sphere” in cities that will support a wider sense of social cohesion that will be needed after the crisis.
Alternatively, networks will reduce services, become even less attractive and useable, and the operators will not be able to meet the expectation of a post-COVID service regarding cleanliness and spacing. While some people may abandon or reduce urban living as well as choose to use personal cars for travel, both will generate congestion, pollution, and sustainability impacts. The need for cities will persist.
Flocking to new modes?
Because of the wariness of classic public transport, it should be expected that walking, cycling, and micromobility will gain a renewed interest for mobility, as well as generally part of the urban experience. There can still be many issues of social distancing when using these modes, but they offer much greater freedom to control your own personal space.
Many cities have been moving to increase their walking and cycling infrastructure and provide extensive, safe, and accessible routes for many years, but amongst all the public policy challenges, this should remain, or become, a focus.
The model of cities has been altered by the COVID crisis. It may be appealing to feel that at some point in the coming weeks it will all be forgotten and the world will return to the way it was in late 2019. However, too many lives, businesses, and assumptions have been severely impacted during this period and the public health impacts will remain, albeit at a lower level, for some period. The use of facemasks, gloves, focus on handwashing, and physical spacing will constantly remind us of the issues of the crisis as well as, of course, all of those who became ill or have died.
The models of public transport will need to be shifted in partnership with civic authorities who are charged with maintaining the overall functioning of cities.
The effective management of space for mobility, public enjoyment, public health, and safety, as well as economic vitality will become ever more critical to cities in the post-COVID world.
Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London-based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.
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