Cities, Coronavirus and Public Transport

16 July, 2020

In our latest short new report, Greengauge 21 examines the impact of Coronavirus on cities and public transport.

The current restrictions on public transport use – for essential journeys only – are now being  eased in a measured way. Cities depend on public transport. Their economies will not be able to recover until public transport is fully operational. and judged safe to use.

In this extract from an upcoming report for the UK2070 Commission on the transport revolution needed to ‘level up’ the national economy, we summarise the likely effects of Coronavirus on travel demand. We argue that a restored, healthy and improved public transport service is central to national economic recovery and to compliance with Government commitments on climate change.

You can read the full report here: Coronavirus Cities and Public Transport

While a lot of interest has centred on ‘work from home’ instead of commuting to offices, the report points out that journeys to work account for fewer than 1 in 5 of all journeys and office-based work accounts for a minority of jobs.

There are some practical steps for Government that will help economic recovery. The report provides evidence that government itself is a crucial city-based activity that spawns its own business infrastructure. This is an added reason why dispersal of central Government functions – as well as devolution of powers – is so crucial to regional growth. “These are suitable tactics to help regional economic recovery” says Jim Steer.

In the initial stages of re-opening the economy, Government has felt it necessary to keep public transport use restricted to essential travellers only. This has hit cities hard. And, the Greengauge 21 report argues, it is leading to a return of poor air quality levels. These have their own adverse health consequences. “There is also now evidence,” report author Jim Steer says, “that poor air quality helps sustain the spread of coronavirus.” And road traffic is a key source of poor air quality.

So what’s the answer? “We have to begin the shift away from this newly increased reliance on the private motor vehicle”, says Jim Steer. For short journeys, walk or cycle is the best answer. For medium length and longer journeys we can turn to public transport which Government has diligently kept alive through the lock-down period.

It is time – says Greengauge 21 Director – to stop assuming that our bus and rail networks exist on separate planets. “When joined together through a simplified common fare system they can achieve so much more than when operating in isolation from one another”.

Public transport seen as a network, he says, is what’s needed. The various routes of the public transport network, the Greengauge 21 report points out, generally come together in city centres, where passengers can easily transfer from one route to another. “Even if footfall is down in city attractions for now, our national transport system needs to be joined up and resurgent to allow people to reduce their personal carbon foot-prints and to help ensure the calm, quiet, breathable era of the lockdown has a legacy with at least one positive aspect.”