What Page 28 tells us about the direction of travel

If you want an idea of what the ‘new normal’ for transport looks like, then take a look at the chart (reproduced below) on page 28 of a briefing published this week for MPs by the House of Commons Library.

The Library is far from being a dusty archive, but a place full of resource for MPs which, happily, is also shared online with the public.

The Library’s staff publish a raft of ‘research’ documents every week to help MPs understand the facts about a particular topic. Together, as part-work publishers used to advertise on TV, ‘week-by-week they build into a comprehensive reference work.’

Crucially, unlike pretty much everything else in parliament, the Library’s research and information documents are non-political, unbiased providing impartial analysis, statistical research and resources to help MPs and their staff scrutinise legislation, develop policy, and support constituents

Even on the most difficult subjects they don’t shy away from facts, and present arguments for and against a debating point, along with the evidence.

The crucial chart on Page 28 showing how the gains made in walking and cycling have reverted to pre-Covid levels, while car use is back to the pre-March 2020 rate, but public transport use is struggling to recover

Today’s document Decarbonisation: The impact of coronavirus on land transportation is a chilling warning that despite the happy-clappy promises of politicians and their strategies, the harsh reality is much different.  It sets out in unvarnished terms what has happened since March 2020.

“Sadly, the ‘new normal’ looks much like the ‘old normal’. The only difference is that car use is increasing at the expense of public transport”

Below are some key paragraphs from the document, which you can read in full here

To achieve the Government’s net-zero target, emissions from the transport sector need to be greatly reduced. The significant reduction in journeys made at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic gave a glimpse of what low-traffic cities could look like.

Overall, transport emissions in 2020 fell by 20%, the greatest percentage decrease by sector, with total emissions reduced by 11%.

However, this was largely as a result of the economy coming to a virtual halt, highlighting the scale of the challenge to decarbonise the economy. Further, as restrictions have been gradually lifted, travel has recovered to be similar to pre-pandemic levels, but now with people spending more time in their cars.”

“The initial increase in active transport has not been sustained, with levels similar now to those before the pandemic”

Cars were the main mode of transport used during the pandemic, as they were perceived as being more Covid-19 safe than alternatives. Further, the use of public transport was discouraged at the start of the pandemic, exacerbating concerns surrounding bus and rail travel.

While the use of public transport fell, active transport bucked this trend, with levels increasing during the pandemic due to a desire to improve personal health and fitness, as well as being seen as a safer alternative to public transport.

It remains to be seen whether the behavioural changes due to the pandemic will be long lasting. The initial increase in active transport has not been sustained, with levels similar now to those before the pandemic.

Public transport usage meanwhile has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with car usage a more attractive option.

“The evidence is clear: The public will not be nudged”

While the document isn’t going to comment on government policy, it’s clear that fine words butter no parsnips.

If the government is really going to persuade people to switch from cars to public transport and ‘active travel’ (i.e. walking and cycling), it will be forced to do much more than ‘nudge’ the public.

The evidence is clear: The public will not be nudged.

Sadly, the ‘new normal’ looks much like the ‘old normal’. The only difference is that car use is increasing at the expense of public transport. It will take courageous national and local government decisions to change this.

And, judging by the public’s reported response last week to the increase in National Insurance to pay for better healthcare (which over the last two decades all previous governments have chosen to ignore), courageous decisions are still not voter friendly.

To learn more about the effects of Covid on public transport, and possible solutions, listen to the ‘Lunch With Leon’ podcast with respected analyst Chris Cheek https://itthub.net/podcasts/lunch-with-leon-episode-45-chris-cheek/

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