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Will Public Transport Usage Really Recover?

Citing research published in the Royal Automobile Club’s (RAC) 2020 Report on Motoring, an article from Cities Today claims that the COVID-19 pandemic may have set attitudes to driving versus using public transport back by as much as two decades in the UK [1]. 

According to the RAC report [2], over half of all motorists have said that they will use public transport less in the future, even after the pandemic. This is the first time in 20 years that less than half of UK drivers have said they would be willing to reduce car use, even if train and bus services improved. Before this recent round of lockdowns, car use in the UK had already returned to 90% of pre-pandemic levels, while rail and bus use were at 30% and 60% respectively. 

The silver lining is that while 18% of car owners said they normally worked from home prior to the pandemic, 24% expect to do so even as we emerge from the crisis; and more than a third (36%) of motorists believe they will work from home more frequently – even if not all the time – in the post-pandemic world. 

However, the RAC cautions that changes in attitudes of vehicle users towards public transport represents a seismic shift compared to recent years, and suggests drivers are more wedded to their cars than they have been for a long time. Transport Focus, an independent watchdog for transport users in the UK adds that “[T]he challenge for central and local government and public transport operators to win back widespread confidence and patronage, thereby returning usage to pre-pandemic levels, is starkly revealed.” [3] 

 

Personal comments

Currently, most of the discussions around the post-pandemic mobility landscape still assume that the pandemic is just a blip and that people’s mobility habits will sync back up with long-term trends once a vaccine is found. While some analysts acknowledge that there may be some lingering effects on user behavior even after the pandemic, this is usually discussed in terms of a few years rather than decades. But what if these effects on mobility habits and preferences are enduring rather than short-lived? 

Consider the following example: 

While most of Europe has been rapidly moving towards a cashless society, physical money has stubbornly remained king in Germany – despite innovations in contactless card and phone payment technologies which have taken the rest of Europe by storm. A common explanation posited for this has been the monumental impact that hyperinflation in the 1920s has had on the national psyche. You might think it sounds a bit far-fetched to you that an event almost 100 years ago can impact attitudes towards the adoption of digital cloud payments today. But the European Central Bank published an exhaustive study in 2009 which showed that, whereas less drastic experiences of high inflation do fade over time, large shocks such as hyperinflation can play a substantial role in shaping people’s economic attitudes for the rest of their lives [4]. 

What does this all have to do with public transport and the current Corona pandemic? Well, it simply illustrates the possibility that even after the pandemic is over, people’s attitudes towards public transport could be irrevocably changed. Should that happen, then the flow-on effects for urban planners and the entire mobility landscape could be huge. If policymakers struggle to return mass transit to pre-pandemic levels, then entire plans for sustainable development based around public transport will need to be re-written. A possible alternative then besides a return to the car-dominated paradigm may be for cities to double-down on supporting micromobility and to seriously begin reshaping themselves into ‘15-minute cities’. 

While it is still too early to say to what extent the pandemic will or won’t affect public transport usage over the long term, it is certainly not too early to start thinking about what cities should do in the worst-case scenario where public transport usage never fully recovers. An added benefit is that what works for such a scenario will also work during – like turning roads into cycle lanes – and that’s a win-win because, for all the talk about a post-pandemic world, no one truly knows how long the pandemic world itself will last. 

 

Written by Bobby Chen, RISE Mobility & Systems.

 

Sources

1. 2020-11-09. UK confidence in public transport hits lowest level in 20 years.
2. 2020-11-12. Car dependency and the pandemic.
3. 2020-11-10. Motorists more reliant on cars following Covid-19, says RAC.
4. 2009. Memories of High Inflation.