Are we all ‘lab mice’ now?

The fog of uncertainty is clearing as “nature’s reset” continues.

There’s a theory doing the rounds that COVID-19 is simply ‘nature’s way of dealing with over-population and humans’ bad habits’.

And, there’s another one that says ‘look at how the planet has healed itself during lockdown, so there’s nothing to worry about’.

Yet democratic government is by consensus, and one thing is very clear, in Europe at least, and that’s the welcoming of quiet streets, the biggest fall in air pollution since the industrial age began and the less frenetic lifestyles that many people are now leading.

As Prof David Begg commented to Leon Daniels in a chat over lunch a couple of weeks ago, pre-COVID we’d become ‘human doings’ rather than human beings’. Many people might welcome a permanent change in their lifestyles, although the lack of social contact isn’t one of them.

That point of view doesn’t ignore the deep frustration felt by many during lockdown, which spilled onto the streets across the world in recent weeks. It happened to be the Black Lives Matter protests, but could easily have been something else.

“Fundamentally, five-years of change have been compressed into six months,
due to the effects of COVID-19.”

As we head towards the 20th week since lockdown started in the UK, trends are becoming clearer.

While we can’t predict with any certainty what exactly the ‘new normal’ will be – and how good are we, as a society, at predicting anything anyway – patterns are emerging across a number of sectors.

Fundamentally, five-years of change have been compressed into six months, due to the effects of COVID-19.

The latest example is British Airways’ announcement that it is retiring all 31 Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jets’ in its fleet with immediate effect. They’ve been laid up since lockdown, and will not fly again with BA, the largest operator of the type.

Originally BA had planned to fly the 747s until 2024.

British Airways Boeing 747s have been retired almost five years earlier than planned.

Their 2024 retirement was part of BA’s five-year £6.5bn investment including fitting 128 long-haul aircraft with new interiors and taking delivery of 72 new aircraft.

At its height, BA had 57 ‘Jumbos’ in its fleet, second only to Japan Airlines, which flew 100, but BA’s planned transition to smaller and more fuel-efficient jets has been hastened by world events, which saw almost all its fleet grounded.

Nearer home comes news that almost 34% of all retail sales during May 2020 were carried out online. Research suggests that only 16% of UK consumers intend to return to their old shopping habits post-lockdown.

In the UK bus passenger numbers have returned to around 45% of previous levels – but with massive variations across the country.

A survey by Transdev of its existing customers in Lancashire and Yorkshire finds that 10% will not be returning to buses as commuters, and even fewer at other times.

You might think that China and the UK are far apart in cultures, but in the case of Shenzhen, a city of 23 million (London is 9 million) just over the border with Hong Kong the culture of consumerism, eating out, going to cinemas and the like is no different.

Shenzhen saw the peak of COVID-19 three months before Europe, and its post-COVID-19 recovery is also three months ahead of us.

So, what’s it like living and working in Shenzhen now, and what transport lessons can we draw?

Today, Shenzhen Bus Group’s Deputy General Manager Joe Ma speaks with Leon Daniels in a fascinating podcast, that lifts the lid on what happened and what can be done with some clever thinking. It’s highly topical and well worth a listen.

Joe Ma, Deputy GM of Shenzhen Bus Group, sets out the firm’s innovative approach

Joe refers to his operation as being the “lab mice of electric buses”, when he talks about how the operation – which only took its first 100 battery-electric buses in 2010 –  and in 2017 completed conversion of its whole fleet.

But in other respects, the entire world has become ‘lab mice’ in the face of the pandemic.

Like Britain, in Shenzhen people moved from public transport to cars as lockdown bit, and while local government is taking some action to reduce car use, the ‘new normal’ is seeing lower bus use – indeed not too dissimilar a pattern to what Transdev’s north of England customers say they will do.

“Perhaps we have more in common with
the passengers in Shenzhen than we might think?”

To counter this, Shenzhen Bus Group has a range of initiatives, the most eye-catching being the introduction of 50-seater coaches on demand-responsive express services from housing areas to the city centre.

This is in total contrast to the UK where demand-responsive services have been withdrawn in the wake of COVID-19, and many seem unlikely to return. The latest casualty is Liverpool’s ArrivaClick operation.

While some UK operators have been turning the inside of their buses to something resembling a crime scene with liberal use of yellow hazard tape and signs, the comfort of being guaranteed your own window seat (plus an empty seat next to you) on an express coach, has proved tempting for Shenzhen residents.

Given our natural UK ‘reserve’ and unwillingness in normal times to sit next to someone on public transport, perhaps we have more in common with the passengers in Shenzhen than we might think?

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