How covid-19 will change UK travel

Guest article by Chris Black, Commercial Director at LeasePlan UK

There are many opposing forces at work when it comes to the changing face of UK transport in a post-lockdown Britain. A rise in car usage will come as people avoid public transport and stop car sharing while they observe social distancing rules. This will coincide with an increase in people working from home or opting for greener commutes like walking and cycling, which will likely reduce congestion across UK roads.

With public transport due to run at a reduced capacity at least until the end of the year, lockdown could expedite environmental advancements like take-up of electric vehicles, pedestrianisation of cities and more cycle lanes. At the same time, shifting perspectives on work-life balance have the potential to bring about a radical shakeup in how businesses operate, which, in turn, could transform the mobility requirements of millions of workers throughout the country.

So, what can we expect UK transport to look like in the future?

Decentralisation of cities and change in working patterns

The business landscape for those industries that can work from home will change dramatically as a result of Covid-19, which will affect daily traffic levels. Over three quarters of us want to work from home more regularly from now on, some wishing to strike a balance between three days in the office and two from home per week. The lockdown has taken a once hypothetical question for many companies – can my workforce maintain productively levels while working from outside of an office environment? – and proven that it can work. This will give companies much food for thought on how to maintain some of these benefits to staff beyond lockdown. Some countries, for example the UK and Germany, are even looking to make this a legal requirement.

Likewise, people who have been stuck inside small properties without access to green space have been prompted to reconsider their priorities. A study by Savills anticipate a ‘rural renaissance’, with four in ten buyers now considering countryside locations when buying a house. Fewer days in the office per week means an increased tolerance in the length of their commute. In this situation, we expect to see people making fewer but longer journeys. Whether rural roads are up to the task of heavier traffic will undoubtedly come into question. Companies offering company cars may also need to reconsider their policies to ensure that employees driving longer distances are matched with the most environmentally suitable and cost-efficient vehicle.

Increased car usage

There are many factors influencing car usage; key to this is the avoidance of public transport. People are weighing up the decision to buy a car – despite potential congestion, parking and emissions charges in urban areas. 64% of people living in cities now consider car ownership to be even more important. The comfort, convenience and most importantly private, personal space of a car will be very appealing, as trust and capacity of public transport is set to remain low beyond lockdown. With an increased number of vehicles on the road, drivers will need to be extra vigilant when it comes to potential safety hazards. They’ll also need to familiarise themselves with enhanced sanitising procedures and basic maintenance checks, as many non-critical maintenance and repair appointments are still subject to delays.

Even post-lockdown and almost certainly until the end of the year, car sharing won’t be advised under social distancing guidelines, unless the people in the car can be 2m apart, or they’re from the same household. It will be up to companies to make sure there’s enough parking spaces to avoid lift-sharing or manage this by employees alternating working from home days. In situations where car sharing can’t be avoided, for example some crew vehicles, employers will be urged to clean the vehicle after each journey and will also be asked to consider installing safety measures such as barrier screens.

A push towards greener cities

Easing rush hour congestion will be a key challenge. Companies are already trialling staggered working hours for employees and people are being encouraged to walk or cycle where possible. Governments and local authorities must take the opportunity presented by the empty streets of lockdown to accelerate the support and infrastructure required for a long-term take up of greener modes of transport.

Athens, Paris, Sydney and Milan are just some of the cities running various initiatives for long-term change: from more cycling routes and pedestrianised areas, to cash incentives to refurbish old bikes. London will try to preserve the improvements in air quality, however there’s already concern that the reintroduction of the ultra-low emission zones and the congestion charge at a 30% higher rate will slow down economic recovery. There’s also the issue of people living too far away from their place of work to walk or cycle.

Rise of the electric vehicle

It’s critical we preserve the improvement in air quality after lockdown. It’s given us a taste of what a greener future could feel like and has prompted many to reconsider owning an electric vehicle. Lockdown has accelerated this mindset shift where people have appreciated less traffic noise and fewer, shorter journeys and would therefore actively make the switch to an electric car. Shorter journeys make for less range anxiety; a key concern affecting take up before lockdown. They could even be seen as even safer than traditionally fuelled cars if you have a home charging port, as this will allow drivers to avoid the potential safety hazards associated with public fuelling stations.

Although it’s tempting to assume this will spark the EV revolution, practicalities must be considered. Consumers have taken a financial battering from the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and appetite for spending maybe dented, not wanting to overreach on an expense like a new car. The total cost of ownership needs to stack up; initiatives like lengthened finance agreements could help ease this barrier to entry, or employers offering salary sacrifice for car schemes could incentivise electric models. As with cycling, the right infrastructure to support long-term adoption and instil consumer confidence is critical to supporting this behaviour shift.

Conclusion

Our minds have never been more open to change, accelerating the motivation to pursue greener ways of moving around – be that cycling, walking, or driving an electric vehicle. If safety, cost and logistical concerns are not sufficiently met, then we may see a swing back to our old habits over time. The pressing matter of economic recovery also has the potential to derail some of the progress we’ve made in air quality over the past two months. As lockdown is sure to ease gradually – rather than turning the traffic taps on, congestion must be closely monitored to make sure that we don’t rush back to pre-lockdown traffic levels.

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