As the UK begins to ease its lockdown restrictions and people are allowed to move about more, I don’t have a problem with the change of message from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. I feel I can be trusted to behave responsibly and sensibly as I encounter more people beyond my household, and I’d like to think the majority of my fellow citizens can be trusted likewise.
Besides, the first message when it comes to work activities, is to remain working from home if this is possible. And whilst the group that can work from home is not a majority and their socio-demographics have implications for equity, it turns out that far more people can work from home at least some of the time than were doing so before the pandemic. This will reduce pressure on transport infrastructure and destinations alike.
The second message is to walk and cycle where possible, and it is backed up by emergency powers to make changes quickly and funding to implement those changes. Local transport authorities around the country are reallocating road space to pedestrians and cyclists, both to enable safe active travel, and to support social distancing outside essential shops and services.
As I wrote in my last blog, with a proactive approach supported by good spatial planning of these essential non-work destinations, these facilities will help increase walking and cycling among those who are working from home as well as those travelling to work over relatively short distances. In 2018, two thirds of trips in England were under 5 miles (p19).
So far so good. But then we get to the muddle. Whilst some of the other third of trips will be to destinations that are still closed, trips to work and to exercise further from home are being actively encouraged, whilst the use of public transport is being actively discouraged. This is problematic and indeed contradictory for a number of reasons:
- People are being asked to stay alert if they need to go to workplaces where they risk potential infection due to social interactions outside their household, often in indoor spaces. Meanwhile workplaces are expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc) that make staying alert rather than staying home a sufficient precaution. Public transport vehicles are also workplaces. They are also expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc). Therefore, surely the directive to stay alert should be sufficient for both workplaces and public transport, without the additional directive to avoid public transport altogether?
- Related to this, encouraging the reallocation of road space at the same time as encouraging a return to car use could create more conflicts between motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists – both on the road and in the media. Clarity on the hierarchy of road users is preferable to the current mixed messages.
- Furthermore, reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution has been a major benefit of reduced road traffic during lockdown. As COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, keeping air pollution down will not reduce risk of transmission, but may reduce the numbers who are at risk of becoming severely ill. Air pollution causes excess mortality from numerous respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
- Finally, a study in NYC correlates higher infection rates after lockdown with car-dependent areas, compared to those connected by public transport. The authors suggest this could be because people who travel by car to shops and services are more likely to come into contact with more people from different areas of the city than people who travel by public transport and access what they need by foot within their own neighbourhood. Indeed, if people are returning to work by car (or visiting more distant places for exercise), they may split their essential shopping (food, medicine) across communities, potentially spreading or picking up the virus from multiple places rather than one. Such linked trips by public transport are much less likely, whilst active travellers keep everything local.
In conclusion, if a resurgence in car travel is to be avoided, trust in public transport cannot be undermined further by stark warnings, local people must have priority on local roads, and long distance day trips should be discouraged – at least until more destinations re-open and there are more economic and social benefits to making those trips. The messaging around mobility needs modification and a more strategic outlook.