Transport planners plot route through the unknown

The pandemic has turned the commute on its head and raised difficult questions about the future for transport modelling

Illustration: Sara Gelfgren

Covid-19 threw commuter travel into disarray, with millions of employees furloughed or working from home. However, the long-term impact could be far wider, upending planning assumptions for years to come. 

Last summer, Leeds station, the North’s busiest railway hub, was given six years to boost capacity or risk “failing”. In 2016, there were warnings that London’s tube network was set to be “inoperable” within 15 years. What now for such forecasts as we emerge from the pandemic? It’s still unclear – so much so that the Department for Transport has launched an “Uncertainty Toolkit” for transport modelling. 

So as planners try to predict commuter demands of the future, what do they know? And just as importantly, what don’t they know? 

Three things we know now

1. There will be more home working

Just 5.7% of people worked from home before the pandemic, according to the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data. Covid has changed everything, and the effects could be long-lasting. 

While offices might be open again, McKinsey has found that 52% of workers globally want a hybrid working model. Likewise, research published by YouGov this April showed that 20% in the UK want to permanently work from home. 

In Leicester, about a fifth of the working population have office jobs, according to Andrew Smith, director of planning, development and transportation at Leicester City Council. Now, “we sense flexible working will shift to working in-office two-three days a week”, he says.

The council has just launched a transportation plan to 2036, predicting an eradication of rush hour. Smith says he envisages hybrid working contributing to 25% fewer car journeys, with commuters choosing buses, trains or cycles when they do travel. 

Ewan Moore, client development director at integrated agency Unlimited Group, is embracing this new reality. Since the Bristol-based firm went hybrid, he cycles the 7km journey to the office. “Bristol is a safe city to cycle in and is getting better all the time,” Moore says. “Cycle lanes give me confidence when cycling at peak times or even at night.” 

2. Town and city centres are changing

Predictions of the “demise of the high street” pre-date Covid, but the process is likely to be accelerated by hybrid working. Westfield, for example, is reviewing whether future footfall will now be enough to sustain a planned £1.4 billion shopping centre in Croydon. 

Existing retail outlets could suffer from a fall in commuter numbers. For example, Pret a Manger has already announced 2,800 job losses and the closure of 30 sites after reporting a 60% fall in trade. 

Transport planners are trying to encourage more work and leisure trips by reimagining cities as greener and healthier spaces. Last summer, for instance, Liverpool pedestrianised Bold Street and Castle Street, as well as adding outside dining and launching an e-scooter trial through the provider Voi. 

Liverpool resident Ioana Popova still works centrally, but regularly uses the e-scooters. It means she doesn’t have to walk from the train station or catch a bus. “Scooters are faster and more fun,” she says.

3. The shift to localism

Regardless of where hybrid workers choose to live, many travel experts envision a shift towards localism and localised travel, with employers thinking holistically about commuting’s impact on local amenities. 

“Pre-Covid travel patterns we were all used to will change,” argues Andy Marchant, traffic advisor at TomTom. For example, he says TomTom has analysed firms in business parks that have collaborated to stagger in-office working days, dissipating travel and reducing overall traffic and rush-hour delays. 

Towns and cities are embracing localism, offering “smarter”, real-time information to travellers, says Marchant, in areas like car parking or charging facilities for electric cars. 

Three things we still don’t know

1. Where people will choose to live

Hybrid or remote working means many of us no longer need to live close to work. In a sign of the times, Cornwall has overtaken London as the most searched-for location on Rightmove. 

But according to Fran Collins, chair of the Business South Maritime and Transport Action Group, there are still major questions over what this means for local transport networks. While Dorset’s roads are at 100% capacity, planners don’t know if “this is an immediate post-pandemic trend, or whether the status quo will return in two-three years”. 

Already 12 million people living in rural communities have faced reductions in transport infrastructure, according to consultancy WSP. More arrivals could leave regions resembling “transport deserts”, where infrastructure development lags behind population growth. 

Simeon Butterworth, WSP transport planner for Leeds, says it’s important not to over-analyse the data. However, “those working on the Northern Powerhouse Rail Project, for example, are already nervous about what the future of rail use will be”, he warns. “Part of this is where people will commute to and from.” 

2. How people will want to travel

There is now far greater uncertainty about the potential for “modal shifts” in transport than before the pandemic, says Nick Richardson, transport planner at the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. 

Train usage is currently 40% of pre-pandemic levels, though is expected to recover. Bus travel is particularly hard to predict, Richardson says, with data from the International Transport Forum suggesting that 40% of commuters “never want to use it again”. Yet it must still be considered. “Any city resurgence plans must incorporate bus access as unpredictability gives bus operators a reason not to provide services.” 

If towns and cities do aim for a greener, healthier future, cycling could be the big winner. However, the future here is also unclear. While figures show that cycling in London rose by between 7-22% to the end of March 2021 compared with Spring 2019, an emerging new trend is adding uncertainty: the return of the car. Transport for London data from June shows that the number of journeys walked, cycled or made on public transport over the calendar year fell from 63% to 57%, while car journeys rose as people regarded them as safer. 

Could this present opportunities for e-scooters, which potentially offer the best of both worlds? Halfords saw a 184% year-on-year rise in sales of e-mobility products in November 2020, and claims that about a third of commuters would consider using one for short journeys.

“Uncertainty surrounds the settling down period Covid has created,” says Anna Wilson, a WSP transport planning director for the Birmingham region. “The longer people do/don’t use certain transport modes, the harder it is for planners to plan.”

3. How towns and cities will respond

“City centre management will be critical as the new normal unfolds – but it’s not easy to plan,” argues Mike Waters, director of policy, strategy and innovation at Transport for West Midlands (TFWM). More home working means town centres will suffer, unless they attract people for both leisure and work, he says. 

TFWM recently launched schemes that it hopes will encourage travel to towns and cities. This includes a car trade-in scheme, where workers can scrap cars and receive up to £3,000 in credits for use on public transport. Three months ago it also launched “demand responsive travel” trials, including Uber-style smart buses that can be hailed on-demand. 

Environmental demands add a layer of uncertainty. While Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wants 80% of journeys made on sustainable forms of transport by 2041, falls in bus and train usage (also seen nationally) endanger this goal. 

“Towns need people using them,” says Alex Williams, TfL’s director of city planning. Conurbations must think of the best uses for their streets, he says. 

Home working won’t mean less travel, but more disparate travel, Williams believes. Indeed, towns could see their populations increase, as defunct space is turned into residential areas. 

“This could mean small towns and cities require more infrastructure investment.”