COVID-19 and the Implications for Transport Planning and Traffic Engineering

If there are any positives to come out of the coronavirus pandemic, it is that people are considering positive, healthier changes to their lifestyles.  Many have rediscovered the pleasures of walking and cycling and the streets are less congested.  With the recent Government announcement on investment in walking and cycling infrastructure, it is hoped that these changes in behaviour can be seized upon and permanent change brought about.

The temporary changes to our lifestyle has raised many questions about how we would like to live our lives on a permanent basis – what will the ‘new normal’ look like?  Do we have to travel to the office every day?  Can we have that meeting over the internet?  If we have to travel, are there other ways of doing so?  If my journey is less than a mile, could I just walk? If it’s only a few miles or so, can I cycle?

The questions people are asking have more to do with just lifestyle choices and the inevitable health benefits (physical and mental) they bring though.  Many people are asking what kind of an environment they would like to live in as well.  Most people would like to continue to enjoy less congested streets and more attractive and larger public spaces.

The question for Transport Planners and Traffic Engineers is; how should we change the way we plan and design roads, footways and other public thoroughfares, in light of these shifts in attitudes?  Another question is that if we don’t seize the opportunity for change quickly enough, will people return to their cars and the old ways of working and will the opportunity be lost?

Transport Planning and Traffic / Infrastructure Engineering
One of the most prominent announcements from the Government has been the provision of funding to allow the reallocation of road space.  Already, many Local Authorities have taken the initiative to close streets to vehicular traffic, install temporary cycle lanes and widen footways, to allow for social distancing.  In the long term, we need to think about whether current footway and cycleway widths are sufficient to encourage modal shift.  More use of Experimental Traffic Orders should be encouraged to test out a scheme before making it permanent.  The key message should be that we shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with bold measures in the long term.

A couple of years ago the Government put a stop to the use of shared spaces in street design, citing concerns about the safety of vulnerable road users.  Since the beginning of the twentieth century cars have been given priority over pedestrians and, ever since, the private car has dominated public life.  My view is that this mindset needs to change.  Where pedestrians and cyclists significantly outnumber cars, consideration should be given to handing back priority to pedestrians wherever possible and where safe to do so. The emphasis, of course, should always be on safety and ensuring that vulnerable road users are not given a false sense of security.  Consideration should also be given to loading and other vehicular access requirements, but this could be overcome with suitable restricted hours of access to goods vehicles etc.

The provision and allocation of town centre car parking could also be reviewed.  Many Town centres and high streets are overrun by parked cars, which don’t necessarily ‘need’ to park so close to the shops.  Many people could just as easily park in a nearby car park and walk the rest of the way.  Perhaps now is the time to consider seriously how we want our high streets to look and how we provide for the car in the town centre?  Do we need as much parking on-street, or is there capacity in the nearby car parks?  If we remove some of the on-street parking, can we make better use of the space for public realm improvements, or cycle routes?

Consideration of new forms of micro-mobility, such as e-scooters and electric bicycles will also need to be made when planning new infrastructure improvements.  As part of the recent Government measures, it was announced that they would bring forward e-scooter trials in the UK, to assess how they impact on public space.  With these new personal mobility technologies coming forward we will need to consider where they should and shouldn’t be ridden and the necessary charging infrastructure to make longer journeys practical.  Integration with other transport hubs (such as railway stations) should also be considered, in terms of suitable parking and charging facilities.

Travel Planning
It is also important to consider how people will plan their journeys after the lockdown and this will come into play when we prepare Travel Plans.  The new ways of working and emerging smartphone apps should be actively encouraged and managed as part of the Travel Plan process, but also by employers and other organisations, who may not necessarily have a Travel Plan, but want to show their ‘green credentials’ and protect their employees.

Perhaps the most obvious change for many people has been the need to work from home and the future prospect of more flexible working.  Whilst this, of course, should be encouraged in the long term, it may need to be managed in the short term.  With the expected pressure on a reduced capacity public transport system and, at least in the short term, people being encouraged to drive; there needs to be a more coordinated system of flexible working.  For example, employers may need to agree with employees what days specific individuals come into work and, perhaps at staggered times, in order to help spread out the peak periods and reduce the volume of traffic (both road and public transport) at a specific time and day.

Smartphone apps to plan, pay for and navigate a journey from A to B are not new, but they are getting more sophisticated.  Mobility as a Service (MaaS) apps allow users to plan, pay for and get live updates on their journey, with access to many different modes of transport, all from one app.  The Government also announced over the weekend that they had been in discussions with technology companies and app developers about the prospect of supplying real-time data to the user on how busy a particular public transport service is, so that they could make informed decisions about whether or not to use that service.  The ability to book a specific seat on a bus or train (in busy areas) may also help to control capacity in the short term.

Of course, whilst technology is extremely useful, it is only as good as the infrastructure and mobility services available to the user.  People need real choices in the real world.  This may be possible in a large city like London, where the public transport system is extensive. However, the big challenges, in my view, are outside of the largest cities, in smaller cities, towns and rural areas.  This is why it’s vitally important to keep the momentum going and try to seize on the new ways of working and potential shift in travel habits.  Implementing some of the measures outlined above, and put forward by others in recent weeks, will not solve all of our sustainable transport objectives, but they will help set us on the right path.

James Bailey, Principal Engineer

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