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Public transport can and will be the 'natural first choice'

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Public transport can and will be the 'natural first choice'

How are we going to get out of this mess?

Public transport had perhaps never been higher up the national agenda as we entered 2020. The UK Government had approved HS2 and there was talk about reopening railway lines closed during the Beeching era as part of its ‘levelling up’ agenda. And buses, so often overlooked by our media, politicians, and policy-makers despite being the country’s main mode of public transport, were also in the spotlight. Boris Johnson had professed his love for buses and billions of pounds of new money had been found to help them play an even greater role in moving people around our towns and cities.

But then coronavirus arrived and turned the world upside down. According to Apple mobility data, UK public transport use plunged 85% below the baseline level during the week beginning April 6. The recovery has been slow and it will continue to be hampered by the need to maintain social distancing. Double deck buses will only be permitted to carry minibus loadings.

Travel behaviour will clearly change in the weeks and months ahead and policy-makers appear to recognise the need to mould that change. The worst case scenario would be a surge in car use as more and more people return to work and schools, shops and leisure facilities gradually reopen. It’s a very real prospect: car use is recovering fast and the risk is that it breaches pre-COVID levels and goes beyond it. Apple’s data indicates that has already happened in some Nordic countries. We must not let it happen in the UK.

As the world emerges from its COVID-19 lockdown, it's therefore vital that we restore passengers' faith in public transport and protect our bus and rail networks for the short, medium and long-term. To achieve that, we need to equip ourselves with information to make the right decisions and the right time.

Our eBook, 'The Road to Recovery', is a comprehensive guide for bus operators post-lockdown. It provides helpful information and advice on how to predict and plan for recovery as coronavirus restrictions ease. Originally published in May, it has recently been updated with new information, statistics and analyses.

CitySwift analysts have charted how the coronavirus pandemic hit public transport networks in Asia and then Europe, and how governments, transport authorities and operators around the world have responded to the challenge. The eBook makes predictions for the UK and considers how the public transport sector can emerge from this crisis.

CitySwift analysts have charted how the coronavirus pandemic hit public transport networks in Asia and then Europe, and how governments, transport authorities and operators have responded to the challenge.

The challenges are immense, but there are good reasons to be positive. We are now perhaps more aware than ever of how public transport, and the key workers who provide it, help our society to function. Our industry can take pride in how quickly it has responded to a scenario we could not have anticipated. Timetables have been changed at short notice and then changed again. New protections and rigorous disinfection measures have been put in place. And innovative technology – such as the When2Travel bus capacity prediction tool we developed for the Go-Ahead Group – has provided new ways to keep passengers informed. With the industry working towards one common goal, we have achieved what we might have previously considered impossible.

In less than six months, our industry has gone from a bright new dawn to the eye of a brutal and very unexpected storm. That storm will pass and public transport will rise again, reaching its baseline and - in time - going beyond it.

In less than six months, our industry has gone from a bright new dawn to the eye of a brutal and very unexpected storm. That storm will pass and public transport will rise again, reaching its baseline and perhaps going beyond it.

But in the meantime, the new normal will not be easy. As operators restore timetables and networks, they will be expected to juggle the demand for travel while enabling passengers to adhere to social distancing, a concept we’d never even heard of just a few short months ago. We will also have to continue to do all we can to protect our hard working frontline colleagues from the risks that remain. It will require the industry to harness its unique and tenacious ability to adapt like never before.

But amidst all the chaos and confusion that came with the onset of coronavirus, some might have missed a game-changing document from the UK's Department for Transport. In the foreword to the DfT’s 'Decarbonising Transport', which was published in March as the country went into lockdown, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that public transport and active travel ‘will be the natural first choice for our daily activities’ as the UK decarbonises its transport system.

The challenge for operators will be to grasp that agenda and fuse it with a range of new tools and technologies. Strategic investment, a focus on the passenger experience and an emphasis on harnessing the power of data will enable our industry to become ever more dynamic and adaptable. 

Strategic investment, a focus on the passenger experience and an emphasis on harnessing the power of data will enable our industry to become ever more dynamic and adaptable. 

We have a once in a generation opportunity for change and we should do all we can to grasp this unique opportunity firmly with both hands.

The Road to Recovery