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Prioritising ‘active travel’ must be data-driven – and not leave buses behind

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Prioritising ‘active travel’ must be data-driven – and not leave buses behind

The Department for Transport has issued new guidance for local authorities in England on road network management in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It expects local authorities to make significant changes to road layouts within weeks, prioritising cyclists and pedestrians. 

Such guidance is to be lauded. We've all enjoyed cleaner air and quieter streets during lockdown, as a result of the massive reduction in road traffic. Encouraging 'active travel' will help avoid overcrowding on public transport, where capacity will be greatly reduced by the need to maintain social distancing.

Encouraging 'active travel' will help avoid overcrowding on public transport, where capacity will be greatly reduced by the need to maintain social distancing.

Importantly, this guidance is also intended to prevent a surge in car use – a scenario that would be detrimental to air quality, increase carbon emissions and create congestion that would harm economic recovery.

The DfT expects changes to be introduced swiftly, including 'pop-up bike lanes', wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors. While addressing the immediate transport challenges presented by the pandemic, the DfT also sees "a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting transformative change" – so it's critical that these interventions are based on hard data, and take the future of public transport into account. 

Change was already on the agenda. Published in March as the coronavirus crisis was beginning, the UK Government’s strategy on ‘Decarbonising Transport’ declared that active travel and public transport "will be the natural first choice for our daily activities" as the UK decarbonises its transport system. Measures to encourage this modal shift risk a backlash from motorists, but radical actions may be more palatable during a crisis which has forced us all to change how we live our lives.

It must be frustrating for bus operators to find their position weakened at a time of radical change. The profile of public transport and the vital role it plays has perhaps never been higher, but the message from the UK Government, in contrast to cities in France and Germany where public transport use is being actively encouraged as lockdowns loosen, is to avoid using it where possible. Some UK operators are privately expressing fears that this messaging could have long term implications for demand by further stigmatising the services they provide.

There are concerns also that when the ‘new normal’ eventually starts to resemble the ‘old normal’, and social distancing is no longer a requirement, bus operators may find themselves marginalised in reconfigured towns and cities. Wider pavements and new cycle lanes could see buses jostling with cars on the reduced road space that remains. Meanwhile, closing off some roads to all traffic, including buses, would reduce the ability of bus services to take people where they want to go, particularly isolating those who have limited mobility.

Local authorities have access to many different data sources, which they are currently sharing with the DfT to help identify and understand changes in travel behaviour as a result of the decision to impose, and now relax, lockdown restrictions in England. These data sources include urban traffic control and automated traffic counter statistics, video analytics and roadside Wi-Fi data, as well as information on car park usage. In addition, bus data provides useful information on passenger demand and journey times on a route-by-route, stop-by-stop basis – and the recently launched Bus Open Data Service points to a future where bus operators will be able to assist even further in this process.

 Bus data provides useful information on passenger demand and journey times on a route-by-route, stop-by-stop basis – and the recently launched Bus Open Data Service points to a future where bus operators will be able to assist even further in this process.

Data from the RAC, taken from its online journey planners, breakdown recovery rates and ‘black box’ monitors from its insurance division, has already suggested growing traffic volumes in the week before the lockdown was lifted, with a similar increase in trip distances. A corresponding survey found 41% of UK drivers are using their cars more frequently now than they were in the early days of the lockdown. That figure will undoubtedly increase in an environment where private motoring is encouraged.

The requirement to make swift, emergency interventions must now be balanced with the need to be open and transparent about the data that underpins these decisions and the outcomes that local authorities intend to achieve. The lasting legacy of 'greener, safer transport' that the government desires will require an enhanced role for public transport, and authorities should not lose sight of that.

It must not be a case of act in haste, repent at leisure.

The Road to Recovery