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How can people be persuaded back onto public transport after the pandemic?

7 min read

It’s a question which the sector tells Adam Payne is crucial to the UK’s mission to achieve net zero by 2050

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of people using buses and trains in the last year. Recent polls suggest many people continue to feel anxious about the prospect of returning to public transport as society reopens. 

In late February, a third of those polled for a survey by the independent watchdog Transport Focus said they would never again feel fully comfortable on public transport. Nearly half said the pandemic had make them rethink how they would use public transport in the future. 

So what will this mean for our major transport networks? Transport for London (TfL) is warning the trend for reduced use of public transport in the capital could last well beyond the lockdown without sufficient action. Tube usage was around a quarter of pre-pandemic levels in the second week of March this year, while for buses it was less than half. 

Car usage, however, was at 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, despite the severe restrictions on social travel and with many people working from home.

“We have scared the living daylights out of people and we have to address that fear head on,” says Alex Williams, director of city planning at TfL. 

TfL is designing a “big, visible campaign” to encourage Londoners to get back on board public transport as lockdown measures are eased this spring and summer. Williams said the campaign will remind them of “the joys of living in a big city” and how “public transport is a key part of that experience”.

Ex-transport minister Norman Baker said the risk of a “car-led recovery” from the pandemic in the UK was a “major problem” for Boris Johnson’s green ambitions. “The government wants to ‘build back better green’ but that won’t happen if these trends continue,” he said. 

Baker, an adviser on the Campaign For Better Transport, said the government’s highly effective stay-at-home message was unduly damaging to public transport because it gave the impression “that the bus and the train were dangerous in themselves, rather than the use of them”.

The former Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes said the government should introduce a temporary fares holiday this summer as part of a national campaign to promote public transport. “We had ‘eat out to help out’. Why not ‘use a train or bus to help out’?” 

Upgrading public transport has been a perennial theme of Johnson’s political career. It was at the heart of his successful general election campaign of 2019, when he promised voters that he would “level up” their local services if returned to Downing Street.

This month he revealed details of one key part of his promise: the National Bus Strategy.

The Department for Transport (DfT) intends to spend £3bn on providing more evening and weekend services, simplifying fares through daily caps, creating more bus lanes and eventually replacing diesel buses with electric and hydrogen models. Johnson said it would “make buses the transport of choice, reducing the number of car journeys and improving quality of life for millions”.

Stagecoach welcomed the “ambition” of the strategy but said it was “critical” that the government matched its list of promises with “the right level of funding”.

Transport bodies agree that the government will need to invest greatly in buses and trains if they are to recover and excel post-pandemic.

Midlands Connect has asked the Treasury for £20m to expand train routes in and out of Birmingham. TfL has asked for another £3bn to help services continue over the next financial year.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) estimates that if the north had received the same amount of per person funding for public transport as the south in the decade leading up to 2018, it would have received an additional £66bn. The Prime Minister is under pressure to cough up.

But it’s not just about money, say those within the sector who spoke to The House. Radical action is needed, too.

Katy Taylor of Go-Ahead Group, which runs nearly 6,000 buses in England, said the National Bus Strategy contained “really positive” targets for local authorities but wasn’t bold enough.

The Prime Minister would not achieve “real transformation,” she said, until the prioritisation of public transport over cars underpinned all government departments. 

Taylor argued that the whole of government adopting this principle would eliminate policy contradictions like the Treasury’s refusal over the last decade to increase fuel duty.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak reportedly opted against raising the tax from its current rate of 57.95p a litre in his most recent budget due to the public’s continued reliance on their cars during the lockdown. 

Baker, who was a DfT minister for more than three years, said the 10-year freeze on fuel duty showed that “the Treasury’s policies are out of line with the government’s wider green strategy”.

Taylor also pointed out that the government had already promised to deliver 4,000 zero-emission buses before the end of this parliament. “A year and a half in and we still haven’t bought one yet.”

Simon Jeffrey from the Centre for Cities said local authorities needed to make “pretty tough decisions” that would almost certainly rile motorists. People who drive private vehicles in city centres and busy towns must become “the new source of funding” for public transport, he added.

Jeffrey said councils should charge fees to drive and park in congested areas and use that money to take bus services out of the hands of profit-focused private companies. “We needed to go much faster pre-pandemic. Now there’s an even greater imperative to go faster and be more radical.”

He pointed to Nottingham’s workplace parking levy as an example for other cities to follow post-pandemic. Employers in Nottingham with 11 or more parking spaces must pay Nottingham council £415 per space. The council puts the cash into funding the city’s tram and bus services.

London could soon implement more measures to deter car use in the capital. TfL is waiting to hear the results of a feasibility study into a Greater London boundary charge for non-residents driving into the city. TfL estimates that, if implemented, it could raise £500m in net revenue every year.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing policymakers and transport leaders trying get people out of their cars and on to public transport is adapting to changing public behaviour. 

Home working is expected to become more common as the country emerges from more than a year of restrictions. That could lead to reduced peak time travel, while some workers might be more willing to embark on longer commutes if they are making that journey less frequently. 

“There is a lot of thinking at the moment about planning future public transport,” says Maria Machancoses, CEO of Midlands Connect. “When it comes to trains, we can’t just concentrate on nine to five and season tickets. We cannot go back to the former way of thinking; that it’s all about facilitating the commuter network.”

Public transport must adapt quickly or risk being deserted by swathes of the public, she warned. “We must take action before people make long-term choices about how they’ll travel in the future.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “We’ve provided unprecedented support to our transport network throughout the pandemic, including billions in financial support for bus and tram services and emergency measures agreements to keep trains running. 

“As we recover from Covid-19, we are committed to ‘building back better’ and decarbonising our transport network to end the UK’s contribution to climate change by 2050.”

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