By Neil McAlpine

As the world reviews the responses to Covid-19 in terms of flattening the infection curve and the economic consequences of the imposed lockdown, Transportation Planners are also watching the response very closely as the exact strategies which we have been adopting for many years are happening in an extreme manner.  In many ways we are currently going through the biggest social transportation experiment in history and traditional behavioural change theory has gone out the window.  The immediate impact the virus has had on air pollution has been discussed many times but what about the post Covid-19 reality, people are talking about returning to the norm but should this be what we are seeking to achieve / striving for.

Firstly and most importantly, the economic situation will be different and Keynesian theories will be at the forefront to decision makers thoughts once we are in a position to consider returning to normality.  This is likely to result in greater resources being focussed on health and to a lesser extent research.  However other areas such as infrastructure and technology which have high returns and strong economic and employment impacts are likely to be supported to try and restart the economy.  This is where transportation comes into the equation.

We need to maintain the recent gains we have made on pollution whilst minimising the impact on the economy and also, until a vaccine/treatment is found, provide a means to preserve social distancing.  This could support an accelerated switch to electric cars but that is not the sole answer. Indeed, this is likely to be the fourth or fifth choice in the modal hierarchy.  The challenges we face as an industry are to ensure that the public don’t entrench back to the private vehicle because they do not want to use public transport as they have out of the habit or are afraid because they view it as a potential place to be infected with no means of social distancing.

So back to Keynesian economics and how we should use this to embrace a different infrastructure future.  As an industry everyone realises that the biggest economic returns and health benefits in infrastructure lie with interventions related to cycling and walking, yet these receive the lowest level of funding.  We now have the knowledge that not all journeys are  necessary as flexible working practices (in particular video conferencing) are accepted and understood and therefore not everyone needs to travel at the same time or jump in their car to attend face to face meetings on a daily basis.

The idea that road space should be given to modes such as cycling and walking to help promote exercise, ensure social distancing and be a safe viable mode of transport is now accepted with cities as car dominant as Milan, Glasgow and Belfast embracing non-motorised modes over traditional and even electric vehicles.  These temporary infrastructure changes need to be made permanent and the economic and environmental case for doing so is very clear. Appropriate travel is as important a consideration as appropriate travel mode choice and the phrase ‘essential travel’ has brought this into sharp focus over the last month.

As an industry we need to hold politicians and decision makers accountable and make sure that some if not all of the recent changes in travel habits are supported on a permanent basis to result in a safer, more environmentally friendly environment for all.

Image: Cundall model

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Neil McAlpine, Sustainability, Transportation


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