How should transport policy be reformed to help the industry recover from the pandemic?

The Occasion

The Covid19 pandemic has seen the severest restrictions on travel most of us have encountered in our lifetimes. As mass vaccination offers hope for a gradual way out of lockdowns, the time is ripe to explore how transport policy in Britain could be reformed to help the industry recover. How should policy makers take account of the ways in which the pandemic has reshaped our travel needs, behaviours and how we use cities? Will we need new incentives to encourage public transport usage and a prevent a permanent increase in private car travel? And what does ‘build back better’ actually mean for our transport infrastructure?

To discuss this crucial topic, the ITC was delighted to welcome a distinguished panel of experts at our digital Spring Discussion Event held on 11th March 2021. The discussion was chaired by ITC Commissioner and public transport expert Sarah Kendall, and the expert panel also included: Elliot Shaw, Executive Director of Strategy and Planning at Highways England; James Angus, Principal Policy Lead, System Operator at Network Rail; and Steve Canadine, Managing Director of Transportation at Mott MacDonald. The ITC was also pleased to welcome insights from ITC Patron and former Secretary of State for Transport The Rt Hon. Lord McLoughlin CH, and from Chris Loder MP of the Transport Select Committee.


How can transport policy be reformed to help recovery from the pandemic? Key issues from the speakers:

  • Elliot Shaw explained the policy considerations facing the Strategic Road Network (SRN). He reported that the pandemic had caused a variety of changes in the use of England’s major roads. While there had been a massive fall in car traffic during the first lockdown, this later recovered to 80-90% of pre-pandemic levels, while HGV traffic had exceeded pre-pandemic levels by Autumn 2020. The differences in traffic volume between peak and off-peak times of day had reduced, while falls in car travel were steepest amongst the over-35s. A key question was whether people were now travelling in different ways and whether these changes would be permanent as a result of shifts in working and shopping habits. Indications were that flexible working and higher levels of online shopping would persist, and network planning would need to accommodate this. Policy makers would need to prepare for new patterns of demand, he suggested, while remaining focused on environmental objectives and considering how investment in the SRN could best help the national economy recover.
  • James Angus offered a perspective on the policy challenges facing rail. He suggested that in the post-pandemic world the rail industry would need to cope with changes in how often people travelled, in passenger priorities and with constrained funding. He explained that rail had been particularly affected by the pandemic due to the sharp reduction in commuting, which contributed a high proportion of rail journeys. More flexible working patterns could mean less commuting by rail, he observed, although could also reduce peak-hour pressure on the network, helping to spread capacity more efficiently. It was possible, he suggested, that leisure rail travel, which had been less affected by the pandemic, would increase, and demand patterns were also likely to favour more flexible ticketing. Passenger priorities would probably change, he added, with much lower tolerance of overcrowding and uncleanliness. If more rail travel became discretionary he suggested that there would be a greater commercial incentive to focus on what passengers wanted. He explained that in a funding-constrained environment the rail industry would need to focus even more on efficiency and be very clear about value for money. Policy makers should focus on the strengths of each travel mode, including by making best use of existing assets.
  • Steve Canadine provided a view of the policy issues facing land use, planning and active travel. He explained that cities were resilient and had always recovered from pandemics in the past. The crisis had, however, accelerated existing trends towards digitisation and flexible working which policy makers would need to accommodate. The Government had fortunately kept faith with mega infrastructure projects which had provided a lifeline to the transport industry. Policy makers would need to understand which changes were permanent and which temporary, and plan accordingly. An opportunity existed for urban planners to focus more on social outcomes and improving the well-being and quality of life of citizens. The idea of the 20-minute city was welcome if it generates more investment in local sustainable transport, and an equitable distribution of social amenities, but this would mean less focus on the concept of a radial, commuting city. Achieving social justice, as well as meeting transport decarbonisation objectives, would be major challenges for policy makers in planning for recovery.

Key themes raised in the Q&A discussion:

The discussion was chaired by public transport expert and ITC trustee Sarah Kendall.

  1. Much is still unknown about what will change as a result of the pandemic: policy makers should proceed with caution. In spite of the profound travel changes wrought by the pandemic, it was observed that much is still unknown about what travel behaviours will look like in the longer-term. As a result, some attendees noted that it would make sense to plan cautiously rather than assuming any one scenario will clearly emerge. Others proposed that a range of possible policy actions should be identified to cover the range of potential outcomes that might arise. Various attendees noted that the pandemic had accelerated existing travel and behavioural trends, and also had focused attention on bringing forward the rollout of low-carbon transport. This would require relevant infrastructure investment, such as in hydrogen production or electric charging stations.
  2. Keep faith in the value and attractiveness of cities. A number of people pointed out that rumours of the death of the city were exaggerated. Although there had been a recent trend towards moving to suburban or rural homes that had more space for living and working, the numbers were relatively small and many expected that the attractiveness of cities would return once the pandemic was over. In addition, market dynamics could reduce the relative expense of city centre locations, especially London, making them more affordable for younger people who have otherwise been priced out. High density living was also more environmentally sustainable, and policy makers should continue to invest in local urban transport schemes as well as encouraging walking and cycling in these areas.
  3. It will be important for policy makers to identify the strengths of each mode and plan accordingly. All modes of transport have been affected by the pandemic, it was noted, and an opportunity existed to create a holistic transport plan for recovery. In so doing, attendees suggested that it would be important to understand the strengths of each mode and design a multi-modal policy that harnessed these. Rail was excellent at bringing high volumes of people in and out of city centres, while buses provided improved local mobility. Meanwhile, it should be recognised that 90% of land freight was transported on roads, so investment in cleaner HGVs will be essential. Bold initiatives such as road pricing could help to manage the network more efficiently, while others noted that permanent changes in peak travel patterns would have major implications for public transport.
  4. Policy makers should pay attention to the social equity aspects of new initiatives. Some attendees observed that the social impacts of new trends and policy changes should be given careful attention. For instance, many key workers had little flexibility over their working hours and needed to rely on public transport systems; such people would suffer disproportionately if investment was cut. Some felt there was a risk that inner-city areas could become neglected, while others noted that an increasing number of younger people did not have cars and relied on public transport. Attendees also encouraged policy makers to think about the gender implications of their decisions, especially if there was a permanent shift towards flexible education hours resulting in different childcare needs. Moves towards more flexible working practices and transport pricing could help in this respect.
  5. Infrastructure investment will be crucial to achieve a strong recovery. The importance of continued investment in major transport infrastructure was noted as having helped to sustain the industry through the pandemic. The high returns from transport infrastructure investment indicated that this should be a key part of the ‘build back better’ recovery programme. The need to accelerate the move to low-carbon transport also provided opportunities for investment in sustainable transport schemes. In addition, the move towards flexible working suggested that investment in digital infrastructure would be important, both at home and while travelling.