Transport is an enabler

Toy wooden train track and bridge\
Posted on: February 9, 2021 Posted by: Liz Davidson Comments: 0

Transport is an enabler

By Vinita Nawathe 

Transport is an enabler. There are lots of reasons to move people and things from one place to another; transport solutions come out of understanding what needs moving, where and why.  

Solutions that meet needs provide opportunities for different uses. Over millennia more people, more goods and heavier things have been enabled to move more frequently, more speedily or over bigger distances, for more reasons.

The movement of skills and materials, the mixing of culture and ideas; how and where people, supplies, luxuries and services are transported has underpinned the growth of settlements and viability of economies.   

Personal and shared forms of transport have supplemented walking and carrying since the first animals were domesticated and the wheel was invented.

Over the last two centuries, man, beast, wind and water-power have been augmented by engine-driven ships, trains, planes and automobiles that dramatically changed our expectations of time and distance and re-shaped our world.

In this series of guest blogs, Vinita Nawathe explores

  • Who needs public transport most?
  • Why public transport is important more widely?

Part 1: Who needs public transport most?

In this blog, we have taken a step back to consider who needs public transport.

In recent years, the UK’s thriving economy and growing population led to a huge growth in transport demand across all modes.

Before the pandemic, peak time road traffic congestion, overcrowded trains and full buses were the norm.

And, although remote working and video-conferencing was an increasing trend, it was not universally embraced, particularly by some employers who feared flexibility meant a loss of productivity.

Along came lockdown

The first lockdown of 2020 radically reduced travel demand across all modes and it was suddenly clear that working practices are adaptable, technology works, and that work/life balance and productivity can even be improved by reducing travel.

When restrictions were eased road traffic crept up to near normal levels but public transport usage did not.

Changes in travel behaviour during crises can be long lasting and it can take months or years for pre-crisis levels of usage to return. For example, following the 7/7 bombings in London there was a fall in public transport ridership and and an increase in cycling which persisted for some time.

Everyone’s wondering about a post-pandemic world

Some speculate that the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic will be lasting reduced demand for public transport. Some even see this as an existential threat, comparing the death of canals to the prospect facing rail.

There are hopes of significant, sustained, modal shift to active travel – last May the Government announced £2bn in funding cycling and walking.

Those hopes are countered by concerns of a car-led recovery as people continue to avoid public transport – there have been significant investments in platforms that broker 2nd hand car sales.

Meanwhile home delivery and online shopping are projected to continue to grow at the expense of shops.

And while many expect commuter demand to be lower in the longer term, others predict a “Roaring Twenties” effect when people are allowed to socialise again leading to increased demand for leisure travel.

But we should be cautious about making assumptions too soon. Fear of infection on public transport may last for a while, but the weight given to health considerations, convenience and necessity will vary for individuals over time.

The economic necessity of the future may have a greater bearing than the health concerns of today.

Homeworking isn’t for everyone

Homeworking during the pandemic has been mainly the preserve of white-collar workers with good digital connectivity.

Even among those who can, not everyone enjoys it. Younger people, often in shared accommodation, find it particularly difficult.

While changed practices may continue to an extent, not everyone has, or will have, the luxury of choosing how and whether to travel.

Some 40% of those surveyed about returning to work (Ipsos Mori, June 2020) stated that they cannot be flexible with work start and end times.

Domestic circumstances, practical considerations of space and connectivity and need for professional interaction will influence individuals’ proclivity for home working.

Transport is fundamental to an inclusive society

Generation, gender and socio-economic groupings have a big impact on access to cars. The National Travel Survey shows that in 2019,

  • 24% of all households in England had no car or van;
  • in the lowest income quintile this rose to 45% of households;
  • 19% of adults lived in a household with no car or van; and
  • Of the people who live in households with a private vehicle, 12% don’t drive.
  • only 35% of 17 to 20 year-olds and 62% of 21 to 29 year-olds had driving licences, compared to 85% of 40-70 year olds.

In summary, for 31% of UK adults, self-driving a private car is not an option.

There are gender variations, with females slightly more likely to live in a carless household or to be a non-driver in a household with a vehicle. Of the 33 million driving licence holders in England, there were an estimated million more men than women.

There are particularly marked differences among the older and younger generations.

A higher percentage of males than females held licences in 2019 in every age group except the 17–20 bracket. Gender differences are more starkly pronounced in the older age groups – while 81% of males aged over 70 had licences in 2019, only 55% of women aged over 70 did.

It is not possible to tell from the data how many people with licences do not drive regularly.

Low-income adults, young people and older women are the most likely to have no, or less autonomous, access to a car.

Public transport is the bridge to opportunity

Predicted and intended behaviours change with real-time pressures. And we need to be careful that assumptions don’t become constraints.

Significant portions of society – particularly young people, low-wage earners, and older women – rely on public transport.

The sectors most negatively affected by the pandemic, such as retail and hospitality, employ millions of people within these groups. They cannot do their jobs from home and many have been furloughed or made redundant.

It is unclear when (or if all) these jobs will return, but people will still need to work, and public transport will be the bridge that enables them to get back into employment or training.

Demand for public transport may be worryingly low right now, but we need to remember that many of the people who use and rely on it aren’t travelling at all at the moment.

In our next blog, we consider Why public transport is important?

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