Returning to Public Transport

As the second wave of coronavirus breaks over us and people up and down the country are bracing for local and national restrictions, the transport system finds itself in a bit of a quandary.

On one hand, there is clearly a need to a control the virus by not allowing people getting too close together. On the other hand, allowing people and goods to move around is essential to minimise impact on the (local) economy – and on people’s mental health.

Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever been on the Northern Line or the TransPennine Express knows that the way we used to commute isn’t exactly compatible with social distancing. To some extent, the population has solved that problem by simply getting into their cars, but that’s hardly sustainable. So, what is a transport authority to do?

To answer that question, Connected Places Catapult has analysed the options available in this report. To start with, we need to recognise that all transport authorities are not made equal. I’m not getting into the discussion whether one is better than another – but there’s no denying that transport is a different beast in a metropolitan area like London or Manchester to that of  a market town like Cambridge or Ellesmere. While all transport authorities aim for the same sunny uplands (economic recovery, no surging COVID-19 cases and, preferably, no increase in private car use), the barriers to achieving them may vary. For example, commuting distances in the larger conurbations are often seen as too big to allow cycling or walking, while in the smaller towns the distances are less of a problem, but the cycle lanes and sidewalks may not be there. This, of course, directly affects what each transport authority can – or rather should – do.

The larger metropolises could do worse than introducing some form of ‘right to travel’ (on public transport). It could be based on a clean bill of health (though it’s debatable whether we have the systems in place to test frequently enough) or on some assessment of the need to travel. As a firmly white-collar worker, I’d be the first to admit that my contribution to the economy is in no way influenced by whether I work at home or in the office; so why not give that waitress or the gentleman working at Tesco my seat on the Tube – they do need to be physically present at their workplace. Could this be put in place? Quite easily, provided we find a way for companies to share their employees’ data. It might not be a popular policy, but neither are local lockdowns.

The key, as always, is in communication: explain to the public why these “draconian” measures need to be in place, demonstrate how well it’s working, and people will be a lot more forgiving. And if all else fails, why not try something truly radical: what if companies paid for the commute of those workers that really need to be physically present? That solves the whole problem of identifying who has the “right to travel” by simply issuing those people with a travel card or a subscription to a mobility service. Of course, I’m oversimplifying. There are quite a few issues to overcome, but nothing that can’t be addressed in a few well-designed trials, instigated with bit of courage and imagination.

Another thing that authorities could introduce is a form of dynamic demand management, where the routes and times of travel are tweaked to optimise the whole transport system. This could particularly suit the more regional, integrated authorities (such as Transport for the West Midlands or Transport Scotland), which often have a range of population density and transport provision under their aegis. There are several ways to go about this, ranging from peak pricing on public transport or parking, to subtle nudges to shift people’s choices. Somewhere in the middle lies changing the mapping and planning software algorithms, to give you and your neighbour two different routes to travel, even if you do happen to go to the same place.

However, this is more difficult to implement: it would require quite a lot of data sharing, some of which can be rather personal and most of which is not going to be standardised at all. In addition to that, we don’t know whether people will accept the changes. None of these difficulties are “hard” problems, however they are the sort of issues we don’t even know how to approach. In fact, they lend themselves almost perfectly to a large-scale regional pilot, where multiple interventions are tested, possibly, through a mix of real-life testing and modelling.

For the smaller towns, dynamic road user charging is an obvious approach to reducing the number of private cars on the roads. But this is likely to be rather unpopular without offering some sort of proverbial ‘carrot’ to the population. One interesting option is to introduce (or, in some places, extend) a park-and-pedal scheme. Analogous to the park-and-rides that most of us are familiar with, the scheme would allow people to drive into the edge of town, then swap onto a bike for the final stint. There are some considerations here. Can you encourage people to use the bikes (especially when the weather turns foul)? Are there ways to keep the bikes and storage docks safely cleaned? – and more importantly, what are the ways to make sure people trust them to be clean? And will it work, or will it end up being a scenario where lots of cyclists are crammed up onto fairly small cycle paths with all the risks that come with it? But again, if you excuse the broken record, these are things that can be quite easily tested in a pilot scheme.

So, do I suggest that transport authorities crack on and set up such trials? None will do this alone – it will need a small phalanx of collaborators that can provide the tech, the data, the decision support; or that can track the impacts on residents’ wellbeing and the economy. At Connected Places Catapult, we are actively working to help coordinate transport authorities to share learning and to identify and test new solutions. Some transport authorities are perfectly able to set up such a consortium (in fact, they are likely to have relationships with some of the partners already). Nevertheless, it would be counterproductive for them to simply plough on. For starters, that may leave the smaller or less well-funded authorities in the lurch; and now, of all times, is not the moment to be selfish. On a more practical note, there is only so much money, political capital and land that we can devote to these trials. We really cannot afford to be duplicating efforts or – even worse – repeating mistakes.

We need efforts to be coordinated on this. At the very least, there needs to be a central register of pilot activities, with details on the expected outcomes, timelines and progress. In addition, a forum would be useful for various transport authorities to share both positive and negative results of their pilots, with no fear of reputational damage or undercutting any IP developed for a trial. Then, there is a question of data sharing between the individual pilots – not just results and insights, but the real detailed data, such as people’s trips during the pilot. To make life a bit easier on some of the transport authorities, why not set up a crack squad of data scientists to analyse this combined data on behalf of any transport authority in the country (or indeed, beyond).

Increasing transport capacity after COVID-19 lockdown
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In this report we analyse the different interventions that transport authorities could take and the barriers to implementation of each. We also observe what other countries have done to tackle this unfamiliar yet common challenge and look at some of the lessons learnt.

What now?

So, where does a transport authority go from here? To start with, download the Connected Places Catapult analysis and find out how it applies to your own specific situation. If you would like to discuss it further, feel free to contact us and  we’d be happy to take you through our logic and hear your thoughts on what we may have missed. But more than that, we’d like to hear from you if you are looking to set up any pilots. We can offer assistance in shaping the pilot, finding the right partner or the funding, and start building that register of pilots plans.