Centre for Cities Webinar: Transport in a Post-Covid-19 World

Centre for Cities Webinar: Transport in a Post-Covid-19 World

Centre for Cities is a think tank which seeks to help towns and cities achieve their economic potential. They produce research and create policy options that support urban leaders, Whitehall and business develop plans for economic development.

They run a series of webinars on various subjects: a recent one addressed the ways in which urban transport might change after the pandemic.

After a brief introduction from Andrew Carter, the Chief Executive, the first speaker was
Paul Swinney, Director of Policy and Research at Centre for Cities. Frances Cairncross, in her 1997 book “Death of Distance”, had argued that new communications capabilities would mean that people would no longer travel to work in cities – they could work from anywhere. Paul suggested that despite massive technological improvements in the last 20 years, there was little sign of this happening. City centres and the suburbs still account for over 50% of businesses and jobs.

Consequently in many cities public transport is vital. In London 80% of city centre workers use public transport; in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester over 45%. But in other smaller cities – Swansea, Telford – public transport is much less well used. If the pandemic causes a move away from public transport then that is a severe headache for the major cities.

Much is made of post-Covid-19 schemes to increase cycling and walking. Relatively few people in the major cities live within 10km of the centre – the feasible range of cycling for most. Converting even 5% of these would amount to a 5-fold increase, so is likely to be challenging. When one considers factors such as the weather, pollution, lack of facilities (showers etc) the prospects for a massive shift away from public transport look slim without a matching growth in car traffic – which few would want.

E-scooters or e-bikes could extend the catchment area, but long-term the way to improve things is through planning – denser cities with housing and employment co-located.

Laura Shoaf, Managing Director of Transport at West Midlands, explained the situation in her region. With the lock-down, public transport usage fell by 90% immediately, and the services were focused on key workers. Interestingly, in the suburbs, they re-configured their Dial-a-Ride service for use by key workers – which also showed up some gaps in the service.

Now, as lockdown is loosening, they are facing the challenge of how to manage mass public transport with social distancing – 70% of people don’t have access to a bike. You can only get 18 people socially distanced on a double-decker bus; tram capacity falls from 240 to 40; rail to 20%. As buses with fill up further out from the city centres, queues will build up at stops nearer the centre – where they will clash with cycle lanes. Planning capacity is a challenge, because it remains unclear when schools and FE colleges will actually go back and how demand patterns will change.

A recent survey had shown that 40% people expected to work from home more though car drivers more likely to continue to commute. 38% rail passengers expected to switch driving; metro users would switch the bus; bus users would tend to walk more. People’s main concerns were how regularly surfaces were cleaned, and how social distancing could be managed in queues and on the service. However, people were keen that there should be legacy – cleaner air, reduced congestion, better work-life balance.

Laura closed with a plea for more integrated modes of travel, fewer budgetary silos. Greater local autonomy through devolved settlements would enable then to co-ordinate transport more effectively.

The final speaker was Jonathan Bray, Director of the Urban Transport Group. He was a keen advocate of “active travel” (walking and cycling), providing capacity for buses rather than cars and ensuring good provision for the disabled. He highlighted the financial problems pubic transport was facing. Demand was being dampened deliberately and working from home affected business cases when capacity would need to be increased. Bus services had been struggling financially before the pandemic, so subsidies would have to be higher.

The car is still king, especially in the suburbs and for non-radial travel. He advocated promoting car-share and electric vehicles to meet carbon commitments.

Jonathan also saw devolution as a solution. Current thinking was moving in that direction, but it depends on the wider economic strategy and how funding would be managed. He saw the crisis as having created an opportunity for change – if not now, then when? Decision-makers had developed a new habit of bold, rapid change, a “can-do” attitude that stepped outside constraints of the previous arrangements. He ended with the hope that “zombie” road schemes with limited impact would be shelved in favour of climate safe developments.

Andrew Carter chaired a Q&A session.
Might the current message – “Don’t use public transport” – be in danger of being too successful, will this put people off afterwards? The answer is how to restore confidence – if the loosening is slow and co-ordinated the network can cope. “Please drive” is wrong. Confidence in cleaning is key. Face-covering – mandatory in several places in the world – also increases confidence. Reinforcing good behaviour creates a positive circle, so we should monitor it and encourage respect.

Were temporary cycleways part of a solution? Possibly, but Jonathan thought we would not go back to “normal”: there would be more active travel. Working patterns will change: they are already seeing more inter-peak traffic. Laura returned to the theme of devolution and public-private co-ordination enabling better multi-mode travel. De-regulated transport created problems. Entrepreneurial start-ups were running cycle-sharing schemes: West Midlands was acquiring one scheme to incorporate into its generic ticketing scheme. Funding is modal – it needs to be integrated.

Might e-bikes and e-scooters help? There is a cost issue and a challenge of integration. They could extend the feasible catchment area and reduce shower issues (though weather remains a problem). There were regulatory issues but West Midlands were looking at a trial. E-scooter use could be a way of travelling from your parked car to the station and then from the train to our destination centre.

Can we make more short journeys, maybe use district centres for co-working? One could think of moving jobs instead of people. But Paul suggested we had been trying to do this for ages , so he was sceptical. Better would be for more housing around transport hubs such as stations, in high densities.

Will people come to think of “Urban” as automatically meaning “Unsafe”? Maybe but 5-day working from home doesn’t work.

What does the Government need to do?
– Align funding and power into a streamlined, simple integrated public transport system
– Devolve decision making; make use of local knowledge – it’s ridiculous that bus timetables are determined in Whitehall
– Put the emphasis on Regional transport planning; give then more powers like TfL
– Invest in infrastructure planning – eg underground in Leeds? That would be a Keynesian approach too.

Overall I thought this was a very thoughtful discussion of the challenges facing urban transport in the coming year or two. It was interesting that the limitations of “active travel” were so clearly analysed, but I was surprised that increased working from home was not seen to be a major opportunity to reduce pressure on the system. Other new technology options, like a mix of Uber-platforms and Dial-a-Ride might also be helpful.

However, the discussion felt like a classic example of people reaching for reasons to support their favoured solutions – active travel, devolution – rather than exploring the different ways behaviour might change. It was very focused on the immediate challenges as lockdown is loosened. Looking further ahead, we should explore wider scenarios for the future of urban transport and the future of work, which are themselves shaped by scenarios of the social and political environment and the future of the economy. The High Street was under pressure already – what will increased online shopping, social distancing limiting footfall and people’s general reluctance to be in crowds do to it now? What drivers of change have been accelerated or slowed down by the pandemic? What new scenarios might emerge? Will the “Death of Distance” at last materialise?

If you’d be interested in a wider debate on these issues, get in touch and we can set up an online forum.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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