By Graeme Low
We are now many weeks into lockdown conditions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and this has resulted in a change in travel habits which is seen to be temporary. But should it? We are seeing significant environmental benefits from a reduction in travel, in addition to an apparent increase in the number of trips being made on foot and by bicycle, bringing with it associated health benefits. It would, however, appear that we are desperate to get back to normal. Is this because we are unable to cope with the current conditions or that we are just creatures of habit?
The UK government is currently looking into ways for employees who are unable to work from home to return to the workplace but with measures aimed at maintaining social distancing where possible. It is discussing the adoption of flexible working practices, including making greater use of video conferencing to reduce the requirement for all employees to be in the office daily. The other measure being widely discussed is the potential staggering of employee start and end times to primarily reduce the number of passengers traveling on peak hour bus and rail services. Naturally this spreading of the peak would also have an impact on the demands placed on our road / highway infrastructure through a spreading of the peak demand. It will be interesting to see how this is applied when school begins as start / finish times are unlikely to change, and this is one of the most significant factors influencing the travel habits of commuters.
At present we (as an industry) are obliged to focus on accommodating the demands of the private car, developing measures to accommodate the peak hour demand. These measures can be extremely costly to implement, in addition to having undesirable environmental impacts, and the money could be better spent promoting the use of sustainable modes of travel where the same money can go significantly further. In the UK, our spending on road and highway improvement schemes is significantly greater than that allocated to encouraging sustainable travel and these schemes are in no small part aimed at mitigating a peak hour issue.
I was pleased to see Grant Shapps’ (the UK Transport Secretary) announcement on Friday 9th May of a £2 billion package to create a ‘new era for cycling and walking’ to be followed up with a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy published in the summer. On the same day statutory guidance was published to encourage local authorities to re-allocate roadspace. This is encouraging, but the sums of money being discussed pale into insignificance when compared to that which continues to be committed to highway improvement schemes.
We are in the middle of a Transport Planning experiment and it will be interesting to see if commuters chose to adopt more flexible working practises on a permanent basis, with the result that the peak period is spread over more than an hour at the start and end of the day. Will the reduced number of vehicles result in a reduced demand for roadspace or highway improvement schemes?
We are currently using microsimulation modelling to analyse the impact of re-allocating roadspace to pedestrians and cyclists on a busy Edinburgh street and have been able to demonstrate that removal of one of the three existing running lanes does not significantly increase the levels of delay experienced by drivers travelling through the area. A reduction in the number of vehicles using the street in the peaks would enable the streetscape to be improved for the benefit of all including local businesses without having an impact on journey times.
We have demonstrated that we are able to make changes to our travel habits when necessary, the question is whether there is the political will to generate a positive legacy from the current situation.
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