As the summer winds down, I can’t wait to learn what September will bring in terms of transport use.
The lack of traffic, and therefore air and noise pollution back in late March through most of May was an incredible silver lining of lockdown. It meant that during the sunniest spring on record, we were lucky enough to be able to enjoy clean air and quiet on daily family walks and cycle rides either along every street, cul-de-sac and cut-through within a 2-mile radius, or through the woods that permeate and separate the towns and villages that make up our corner of the Home Counties.
Yet over the summer, traffic has returned, until, according to Department for Transport statistics, vehicle levels are almost ‘back to normal’ compared to an equivalent day in the first week of February 2020. However, are these trips for the same purposes as they were in February? Do they represent the window of opportunity closing for long-term travel behaviour change to be captured from the short-term, mass disruption?
Anecdotal, survey and big data sources all indicate that there remains a substantial proportion (20-30%) of the population who continue to stay at home, so it is hard to believe that the rise in traffic is solely due to people returning to work as encouraged by Government. Even if some commuters have switched modes from public transport to car (due to unhelpful messaging around the risk of infection on buses and trains compared to other risks, e.g. of road accidents), the rise in unemployment and ongoing telecommuting makes it unlikely that commuters are responsible for the return of pre-pandemic traffic.
Furthermore, in transport modelling, you would never compare August to February anyway. August is not an average month. It is prime holiday season, particularly, though not solely, for families with school-age children and those who work in education. Thus, traffic levels, especially in the morning and evening peaks, are usually less in August than in February. It may be that there is actually MORE traffic this August than during an equivalent day in August 2019.
I don’t know have the data to say for sure, but call it an educated guess. Holidays are usually much more spread out in time and space than they are this year. Most spring holidays were cancelled, but employers are not changing their annual leave roll-over policies. Going abroad is an incredibly risky business with constantly changing quarantine rules. And alongside staycation tourism, people are also catching up on visiting friends and relatives around the country who they may not have seen for months.
People may even be taking more leisure and social journeys in order to use up mileage on leasing contracts. There is some evidence that concerns about the ability to take occasional long-distance leisure trips unduly influence perceptions of the practicality of electric vehicle adoption and range anxiety. So are such concerns any less likely to influence decisions on mileage allocations in leasing contracts?
The point is that traffic levels are never a product only of commuting trips, the school run, and other ‘necessary’ and ‘essential’ travel, which tends to happen locally. Leisure trips often have outsized impact and involve longer distances. Thus, my hypothesis is that the current high levels of traffic are not a reflection of life returning to pre-pandemic patterns, but rather a staycation surge. Any evidence to support this hypothesis is welcome, but the real question for transport planners wondering if the time to lock-in local, active travel patterns has passed, is: What will happen in September?