OPINION: What lessons have we learned from coronavirus?


Paul Campion, CEO of the UK’s TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) gives his opinion on the lessons we have learnt from the changes in transport use over the last couple of months and how they can inform future strategies.

Let us not get confused: the Covid-19 pandemic is above all a human tragedy and our hearts go out to all those who have lost loved ones, and to those putting themselves at risk to save others. Precisely because of this huge cost, it is vital that we learn as many lessons as we can.

One of the things that makes it hard to think about how transport can change for the better, is that everything is hypothetical: it is usually impossible to experiment at scale. But here is a massive disruption to ‘business as usual’ which has, suddenly and dramatically, changed how we have been operating; a natural experiment, if you like.

Almost overnight road traffic melted away, trains stopped running, planes stopped flying, buses emptied, people stayed at home. What did we learn?

We have learnt that we are not alone. We (well some of us) have learnt how to work from home. We have learnt what the roads are like without traffic, and found that this brings benefits. Some people have learnt that the law still applies even though the roads are quiet and the car parks empty.

But now comes the hard part. Knowledge is not action. Take a potato around the world and it comes back a starchy tuber, not an expert in geography. The big question arising from this natural experiment is: What are we going to DO about what we have learnt?

This is not just an academic question. Climate change, unless mitigated, will make the havoc wrought by Covid-19 look like a (regulated, once a day) walk in the park. We have a non-negotiable imperative to decarbonise transport. Unless we can find ways to do so without requiring everyone to massively lower their quality of life, we will find it even harder to implement than it already looks.

Well, things are happening. In Brussels and Milan, the opportunity is being grasped to significantly extend infrastructure for cycling and active travel while the streets are quiet. On May 9th, the UK Government announced a £2bn fund to encourage cycling with a range of measures including some small restrictions on motorised traffic to encourage travelling by foot and cycle to school in England. The updated statutory guidance for local authorities starts with a preface in which the following appears:

Bike share schemes could become even more important, post-lockdown

“We recognise this moment for what it is: a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting, transformative change in how we make short journeys in our towns and cities.”

These are great steps, and hopefully the first of many. It is encouraging to see a practical response to the realisation that quiet streets in towns and cities, clean air, and the ability for families to walk and cycle together in safety, are possible after all.

But perhaps there are other things, deeper things we should learn.

A discussion about the future of transport is usually based on a set of shared assumptions about what is possible, what is desirable, and what is acceptable. It is the analogy, I suppose, of the famous ‘Overton window’ in politics. Of course, there are real limits to what is possible: for example, infrastructure is obstinately, well, concrete, and even unlimited will and money could not transform it overnight.

Surely, though, the bigger unspoken limits on our ambitions are the unchangeable habits and preferences of people; the travellers and consumers of goods and services.

What this huge, tragic, experiment has taught us, is that habits and preferences can change overnight, if the circumstances are right. No-one expects that people will willingly return to shared transport, for example, although we might see less resistance to taking a plane on holiday than to taking the bus to work (even though, objectively, the risks are likely to be similar).

Perhaps one thing we can learn from this time, is that the stories we tell ourselves about why we do the things we do, have turned out to have only a loose relationship to reality in some cases.

For instance, office workers, who have long explained that working from the office is more productive, have mostly found that it is precisely the things which make it less productive, (the chatting at the coffee machine, lunch in the canteen with colleagues, stopping by someone’s desk to swap gossip or talk about football) are the things they really miss. They have found that work can often be done at least as well remotely, and the discipline of back-to-back videocalls has many of us working harder, or at least more intensely. This is not to say that going to the office is bad, just that the story needs to change.

We used to tell ourselves that leisure and shopping require us to get in the car. Shopping has, with some crashing of gears, mostly transferred online, or to well-disciplined and planned trips to bulk-buy. Restrictions on travelling for leisure has (after the inability to work for those unfortunate enough to be unable to work from home), probably been the thing that people have found hardest about lockdown: no football (school team, or premier league), no pub or restaurant, no Easter holiday by the sea.

Everyone will be very keen to get back to ‘normal’, but a key lesson from this crisis is that we will not be able to tell ourselves any more that there are no alternatives, or that there are not costs associated with our choices.

Let us beware of the biggest, most misleading story of all: that there can only be one answer and that an average is the same as an optimum. A better world doesn’t always require everyone to change everything. The difference between a stop/start, misery commute, and a free-flowing road can be as little as 10% of traffic. Safer, cleaner streets may only involve small inconveniences to those in cars to give priority to walkers and cyclists. E-bikes can flatten hills and, oddly, tend to make users more active, not less.

During recent weeks we have learnt that many people cannot work from home and that many of the jobs (and the people doing them) that really matter to our lives, are not the glamorous well-paid jobs that have, in the past, gained all the headlines. We have also learnt that relatively small changes in the habits of those who can work from home (often the better-off anyway) can make big differences to those who have no choice but to travel every day, and whose contribution to society is bigger than we have been telling ourselves, up to now.

So let us learn this: we can think of new, and maybe better futures for transport that truly benefit our societies and help prevent a climate disaster. We have the chance to tell ourselves new stories, and new stories can lead to very different outcomes.

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