Mark Lynam is director of transport, housing and infrastructure at Sheffield City Region and a director of the Institute of Economic Development. He argues we must seek to use the current crisis as an opportunity to encourage the move towards better travel choices.
The Covid-19 crisis has taught us many things. The importance of good social networks, the resilience of local communities, as well as how fragile our sense of what’s important in life is.
For those working in economic development, it has also reminded us about how the mobility of passengers and freight is absolutely fundamental to economic and social activities such as commuting, manufacturing or distributing goods.
Each movement has a purpose, an origin, a potential set of intermediate locations, and a destination. The speed by which we manage to reignite our transport systems post-lockdown will be a good indication as to how quickly our economy will begin to recover, but how we choose to do this will also be fundamental to what kind of recovery, economy and society we want in the future.
Commuting by public transport is down by up to 90% in some of our urban areas, and I suspect it could be closer to 100% in our more rural and isolated communities. In addition, combined with the reduction in private car use, this has seen air-quality levels improve immeasurably with more and more people enjoying the benefits which active travel brings to body, mind. There are few people who would argue that over the medium to long-term, a greater modal shift to public transport and active travel is where we need to be heading. Both from a climate change and an economic perspective.
As I’ve written about previously, clean growth is more likely to equal good growth than continuing to pursue the same old economic models of the past. The challenge is that while there were fundamental structural weaknesses in our public transport system pre-COVID, these will continue to exist post-crisis and will be amplified.
The Government has already stepped in to support both our bus, rail and now light-rail systems with direct public subsidies to simply ‘keep the lights on’. Given patronage levels will be unlikely to recover in the short-term, there is a need to reconsider the importance of these systems and the way they operate to aid our recovery. At the moment public transport is a service for the public, it is not run as a public service – and there is a fundamental difference.
It is no surprise that patronage levels on public transport are directly related to our foundation economy, which has taken a significant battering over the last few weeks and is unlikely to recover quickly when lockdown ends.
Fewer people travelling into our town and city centres to shop and spend their leisure time, means fewer people using public transport. If they do, social distances measures post-lockdown are likely to mean restricted use of our public transport modes for some time, which may in turn have the perverse effect of driving more people back into cars as the only viable alternative. That is not a good trend to begin reversing.
That is why as economic development professionals we must recognise the role we have in ensuring that any recovery is a recovery we want to see rather than have to see.
We must seek to use the current crisis as an opportunity to encourage the move towards better travel choices by effectively managing demand on our system to drive an acceleration of modal shift in the long-term, rather than seeking short-term quick fixes, which will not create the kind of just society we should be helping to build.