As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown eases, thought turns to what the new face of rail transport will look like.
It seems most unlikely that people will get back on the train in the numbers they did before, at least in the short term. In conversation, people are saying they have found working from home attractive and wish to continue doing it, and not have to commute five days a week. They also seem nervous of using any form of public transport, with the social distancing problems and having to wear face masks.
But that’s all just anecdotal evidence. What really is the mood of the country?
To find out, transport and research consultancy Systra conducted a representative survey of 1,500 adult UK residents between 4 and 12 June 2020. It sought to establish both people’s view of using public transport and whether they would return to their offices and workplaces.
Of the 1,500 people questioned, 39 per cent said they will use public transport less once all restrictions are lifted, with 65 per cent of those predicting a switch to their cars. This could, say the Systra researchers, have far-reaching implications. Carbon emissions could increase as people avoid public transport due to ongoing safety concerns and permanently switch to car usage instead.
The questions about using public transport produced the following key findings:
- 39% now predict they will make fewer public transport trips once all Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted than before lockdown. When the same question was asked in April this year, 20% of the public predicted a decline in their public transport use.
- This increases to 59% of those who commute by rail or bus.
- Londoners are more likely to predict making fewer public transport journeys with 62% saying they will use public transport less.
- 65% of those predicting a decline in use say they will replace their public transport trips with the car (either as a driver or passenger); 46% say they will walk more, 12% will cycle more and 11% will no longer make the journey.
- The introduction of a vaccine would reassure 37% of those who are predicting a decline in usage, who would then go back to using public transport as before.
- Over the next month, the use of safety measures would make 68% feel safer to travel on public transport, with the most reassuring being:
- limiting the number of people that can board,
- access to hand sanitizer at stations/stops,
- deep-cleaning of the interiors of vehicles, stations and bus stops, and mandatory wearing of face coverings.
From these results it seems that, when appropriate, public transport operators and government will need to reassure passengers that public transport is a safe and environmentally friendly way of travelling.
Katie Hall, Systra’s director of transport planning, said of these results: “The scale of the challenge facing government and public transport operators should not be underestimated. Action must be taken now to prevent a potentially devastating impact on climate change should this switch from public transport to car happen.
“We must understand what people need to restore their confidence in public transport to get us on the path to net zero emissions.”
Working from home
However, the impact of people staying off public transport and using cars instead may be mitigated somewhat by Systra’s other finding from its survey, which is that nearly a third of office workers never want to return to the office!
Of those questioned, 29% of office workers, expecting to stay in the same or similar role, no longer want to spend any time working from the office.
In general, UK employees are expecting a more flexible way of working once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. 45% would like to change the times that they work, including their start/finish times or working their hours across fewer days.
They are also fully expecting to be able to make these changes, with 59% believing their employer will allow the changes they want, and 40% prepared to change jobs if not allowed.
In more detail, the survey found that:
- 29% of office workers never want to return to the office, instead wanting to work from home.
- Of those that commute by rail or bus, this increases to 32%.
- 37% of five-day-a-week office workers want to return to the same pattern.
- 55% of UK workers would like to work more flexibly, including changing their start/finish times or working their hours across fewer days, compared with before COVID-19.
- 59% think it is likely their employer will let them make the changes they want to their work location or working patterns.
- 40% think it is likely they will change jobs if their employer does not allow them to make the changes they want to.
If this change in working patterns takes place, public transport operators will need to adapt and consider their ticketing products to meet new commuter behaviours, and the traditional peak/off-peak travel times may disappear. However, not everyone can or wants to adapt their working hours or location – those not office based are more likely to want to stay working at the same location, and many workers, including key workers, may have no flexibility over when or where they work.
Evelyn Robertson, Systra’s research lead for this survey, commented: “These findings suggest that travel behaviour may permanently be affected by the impact of COVID-19. It is imperative that transport operators adapt to ensure that passengers are still encouraged to use public transport, whilst not excluding those for whom flexible working is not an option.
“More research must be done to understand what passengers need to see in place to continue their more flexible public transport commute.”
With passengers no longer wanting to commute every day, the traditional weekly, monthly or annual season tickets will no longer be what they want. Neill Birch, director of public transport at Systra, explained: “Public transport is well overdue a ticketing revolution.
“Operators will need to carefully consider how their ticketing products will appeal to a passenger base demanding more flexibility. Pricing will need to be carefully managed to cover peaks which may be certain days of the week, not just times of the day.”
Of course, even a representative sample of 1,500 people still only gives an indication of how people may be thinking. Until they actually get back to work, and talk with their employers, the true picture will only be an estimate. But transport operators have to be planning now if they aren’t to be caught out by changes in travel patterns.
As Evelyn Robertson concluded: “Passenger intentions to stop using public transport, even when safe to travel, does not mean this future is set in stone. These findings highlight the importance of engaging with passengers to recognise the influences on their attitudes and behaviour – only then can we understand how to best inspire environmentally-friendly, convenient and safe transport choices. “
It will be interesting to see how things actually pan out.