Professor Greg Marsden, University of Leeds
The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically cut the amount people travel, with possible long-term effects on demand. Greg Marsden of the University of Leeds says civil engineers need to reconsider how they plan future transport infrastructure accordingly.
The global introduction of lockdowns in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented shift in travel behaviour. In most countries only essential travel was allowed with small amounts of localised exercise. What can civil engineers learn from this and how will the adaptations made by society during the pandemic impact future needs for travel?
The first thing to observe is that it is not just the past few months which provide a learning opportunity, but the many months and possibly years ahead where people will need to continue to practise social distancing. The impacts are profound and start with the activities people take part in, the reasons why they travel.
Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, shops, employment sites, gyms, schools: none will be able to accommodate people in the numbers they used to. In Milan and Paris, immediately after the relaxation of restrictions on such places, traffic congestion levels increased 5–7% over the preceding week but still remained at half of 2019 levels (Tom Tom, 2020a, 2020b). People will all be travelling less often for many things for a considerable period to come.
This short note sets out some initial analysis on the impact of transport and mobility on shaping the form of recovery from the COVID-19 crisis drawing on our COVID19 Transport, Travel and Social Adaptation Study.
- The climate emergency has not gone away.
- If anything, the unprecedented restrictions on normal life required to achieve the -10% to -25% reductions in carbon emissions experienced during lockdown demonstrate the (daunting) scale of change that will be required to meet our decarbonisation commitments.
- Policy attention has been focused on the public health emergency, and now increasingly the unprecedented economic shock resulting from COVID-19. But the imperative to put in place measures to achieve decarbonisation and meet Paris Accord obligations remains, as do the associated uncomfortable truths, most importantly that electrification of the vehicle fleet is not enough. We need to travel less in future.
- This is undoubtedly a ‘policy moment’ or point of inflexion representing a rare opportunity to enact radical change that can reset long standing trends and trajectories. As Chris Boardman, the Cycling and Walking Commissioner for the Greater Manchester Combined authority put it, “what we do in the next 20 days will affect what we do in the next 20 years”.
- The main danger is that we create the conditions for trends in transport to get worse rather than better, and make it impossible to meet our decarbonisation targets. It will take determined, brave and probably politically unpopular decisions to avoid this, especially given the depth of the economic shock.
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