What are the longer-term impacts of the Covid19 pandemic on transport and land use?

The Occasion

Four years on from the arrival of the Covid19 pandemic in Britain, perhaps the most disruptive peacetime event in living memory, the ITC has released a new report to assess its legacy on transport and land use. The report reveals a range of longer-term impacts from the pandemic and identifies key challenges that these present for policy makers. Major issues include the financial implications of changed travel behaviour, the impacts upon wider policy objectives such as carbon reduction or tackling regional disparities, and the ways in which the legacy of the pandemic has changed assumptions about the value of travel.

The ITC held a Spring Discussion webinar to launch the report and discuss these issues with leading experts. The event was chaired by ITC Commissioner Sarah Kendall in conversation with a guest panel comprising: Sandeep Shingadia, Director of Delivery at Transport for West Midlands; Professor Peter Jones OBE from University College London; and Bridget Rosewell CBE, Non-Executive Director at the UK Infrastructure Bank.


What are the longer-term impacts of the Covid19 pandemic? Key issues from the panellists:

  • Sandeep Shingadia explored the key impacts of the pandemic from the perspective of urban policy. He observed that the national trends identified in the ITC report, whereby rail and bus use had been significantly impacted but had since made a partial recovery, had also been experienced in the West Midlands. The pandemic had impacted each transport mode differently and it was important to understand how best to support a recovery in passenger transport usage. A key challenge for local authorities in England was funding shortages, a problem that was especially acute in the West Midlands following the financial difficulties faced by Birmingham City Council, and so cost-effective measures were particularly useful. He noted that, in spite of these difficulties, it was essential to maintain transport accessibility and ensure that transport exclusion was not worsened.
  • Peter Jones considered the implications of changing travel and land use trends. He explained that the pandemic had been a major shock to travel behaviour, but most modes had now largely recovered close to pre-pandemic levels of demand, although there did seem to be a long-term increase in walking. Some trends that existed before Covid19, including rising freight traffic and a longer-term decline in bus usage, had been accelerated. The pandemic had seen an increased focus on sustainable travel, which raised the question of what an ideal level of travel should be for policy makers to target. This would need, he explained, to take account of important issues such as the value of travel, induced and suppressed demand, and transport inequality. It was therefore important to examine multiple indicators when assessing transport impacts, including trip rates, trip lengths, and wider externalities. Peter also discussed how the increased digitisation of lifestyles had impacted transport and land use, highlighting changes to the nature of city centres and high streets since the pandemic.
  • Bridget Rosewell focused on the funding and infrastructure issues that were identified in the ITC report. She discussed how many of the financial problems the UK was facing pre-dated Covid19, although the pandemic had intensified these. The pressure on public finances reflected wider economic problems, she observed, including low growth and stagnant productivity. Bridget suggested that the impacts of the pandemic had increased the need for a new appraisal methodology when making infrastructure investment decisions. This should be based on a deeper understanding of transport and land use needs. Key issues include identifying the purposes transport systems are supposed to fulfil, and what an appropriate mix of transport modes would look like. She argued in favour of a holistic approach towards funding infrastructure that properly considered the relevant capital and operational costs, subsidies, revenues, and distributional impacts.

    Key themes raised in the Q&A discussion:

    The Discussion focused on the findings from the ITC’s new report on the impacts of the pandemic.

    1. What are the post-pandemic funding challenges facing transport? It was widely observed that the pandemic had led to changes in travel behaviour that meant that old pricing mechanisms for passenger transport were no longer fit for purpose, particularly if these were overly reliant on business and commuting travel at traditional peak hour times. Some pointed to the example of Manchester, which was now seeing higher levels of tram usage than before the pandemic, but at different times of the day and week. There were also changes in travel patterns in rural areas that were making bus services less commercially viable, resulting in cutbacks to services. It was noted that the DfT is now carrying out pilot mobility projects in rural areas to test demand-responsive models of transport provision. Another key area of concern related to funding challenges for the local road network, which carried two-thirds of road traffic, but was suffering from cutbacks to local authority funding.
    2. ‘Peak Hour’ travel has changed – what opportunities and challenges does this bring? Several guests noted that the time of day when people travel had changed significantly since the pandemic. This was mainly driven by the shift towards hybrid working and lifestyles, leading to lower levels of commuting, especially in rail. Some noted that the flattening of the peak could allow for better use of capacity and less overcrowding. However, maintaining the viability of services required a rethink of fare structures to match new demand patterns. In the case of buses, it was suggested that the peak had increased due to a greater reliance on educational travel and a drop in concessionary travel by pensioners (at off-peak times). Another key challenge was the tendency of workers to travel mid-week (Tuesday to Thursday) rather than on Mondays and Fridays, which needed to be addressed in order to spread travel demand more efficiently.
    3. In spite of the pandemic, travel appears resilient – do we need to restrict it? Questions were raised about the extraordinary resilience of travel demand, given that travel had rebounded in spite of such major shocks caused by the pandemic. This demonstrated the difficulty of changing travel behaviours. It was noted that, in terms of the emissions caused by transport, those public/private organisations that generated the travel should take some responsibility. Few believed that travel should be restricted to meet decarbonisation targets, pointing out instead the social and economic and health values of travel. However, more thought could be given to the balance of modes that make up this travel, pushing towards more sustainable options. A focus on enhancing accessibility rather than increasing mobility would be welcome.
    4. Different parts of the country have different transport needs. A key area of discussion reflected the variety of challenges faced by different areas of the UK. In rural areas, transport challenges were often related to bus demand and service provision, while in cities, supporting mass transit networks was a key concern. One proposition was the need to identify ‘inclusive growth corridors’, which were key accessibility routes that supported economically vulnerable areas and communities. It was widely agreed that transport acted as an enabler for wider socio-economic prosperity. Devolving more funding decisions to local authorities would allow funds to be better tailored to meet specific local needs and challenges.
    5. An overhaul of appraisal methodology is required. A number of delegates noted that better appraisal methodology was needed to meet post-pandemic transport and land use challenges. One key issue is how to best use the flexibility provided in HM Treasury’s Green Book appraisal guidance in order to push for more sustainable, financially feasible, and socially equitable projects. Some pointed to the Crossrail project which, despite significant funding challenges, had been a huge success in enhancing accessibility, improving connectivity and raising journey quality.