Our transport behaviours are about to change

“Crises can result in long-lasting reductions in transport demand, especially where transport is not considered essential.”

Photo taken from Bloomberg.

The crisis has affected all forms of transport, from cars, and public transport in cities, to buses, trains and planes nationally and internationally. Global road transport activity was almost 50% below the 2019 average by the end of March in 2020. The strict lockdown imposed in the UK in March 2020 has led to a 95% decrease in underground journeys in London. The data from Citymapper (a mobile app) has shown that trips have fallen by more than 90% as a result of the coronavirus lockdown in many of the world’s major cities.

Mass transport, which brings people into close proximity with each other, is where some the most tangible behavioural changes manifest during a pandemic crisis, particularly air transport, which is generally perceived as being non-essential. While the current crisis is unprecedented, the data can be instructive in informing us how people’s behaviours can change during and immediately following a crisis.

An IEA report suggested, “Crises can result in long-lasting reductions in transport demand, especially where transport is not considered essential.”

In 2003, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis reduced demand for passenger air transport in the affected regions by about 35% at the height of the crisis. Demand continued to be below business-as-usual levels six months after the epidemic had eased, resulting in an 8% annual decrease of revenue passenger kilometres.

However, it is reasonable to assume that the public’s response to COVID-19 will more closely resemble the response to SARS, as the scale of the impacts and the perceived risks of contagion are much greater compared to more recent pandemics. There are surveys to suggest that people in most countries are nervous about leaving their homes even if businesses are allowed to reopen and travel resumes. The IATA survey indicated that there are two out of five passengers in major aviation markets want to wait for at least six months before travelling again.

From a behavioural perspective, the speed at which air travel demand resumes may also depend on whether responses to the virus permanently change the way we travel. For example, increased health checks may help to provide a sense of security for some passengers. There are also other range of factors such as the risk, cost, convenience, policies and the availability of alternative transport modes — all of which affect people’s mobility decisions. Concerning business travel, COVID-19 could be different from the previous pandemic crisis if companies determine that replacing business trips and formal meetings with videoconferencing is more feasible as technologies mature.

In addition to direct demand reductions for particular modes of transport, previous crises also show that people often adopt new transport practices during and immediately following a crisis, which can sometimes become permanent, depending on a range of factors.

In the example of the 2005 attacks on the London Underground, Underground reopened within weeks and the attacks had ultimately longer lasting impacts on the city’s commuting patterns. Londoners avoided underground journeys for months and partly switched to other modes of transport such as cycling. In despite of the increase in cyclists stimulated by the crisis, the overall impact on commuting patterns was relatively insignificant in terms of its small transport energy demand. Nonetheless, the scale of the COVID-19 crisis could stimulate even longer lasting effects on mobility patterns.

Photo taken from Bloomberg.

There are already reports that are emerging shifts to active transport modes out of necessity, as social distancing measures reduce public transport use. Cities such as London, Paris and Milan were reporting a substantial increase in cycling during the beginning of the pandemic, made more attractive streets by unusually empty roads and better air quality. The UK’s Association of Cycle Traders reported a boom in mending as people retrieve old bicycles out of their sheds to avoid public transport during the pandemic outbreak.

Of course, as the perceived risks of travelling via public transport linger, people are also likely to seek out more energy intensive transport options than cycling, often for purely practical reasons. In many cities, private cars were a more dominant form of transport prior to the COVID-19 crisis and previous crises suggest car usage could spike following this crisis. For example, after the London bombing event in 2005, private vehicle use increased, as people sought to reduce their exposure to potential terrorist targets on mass transport.

Different crises can stimulate lasting changes in mobility patterns, with both positive and negative impacts. As new mobility patterns emerge with this pandemic crisis — such as even more widespread increases in bicycle use than previous crises — building on the lessons learned in the past could help ensure sustainable transport behaviours.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed people’s transport behaviours in dramatic ways, with large reductions in aviation and public transport use and significant growth in cycling uptake. Evidence from previous crises shows that in the immediate aftermath of crisis events, transport behaviours will change, as people reassess the costs and benefits of different transport modes. Decision-making will be partly driven by people’s perceptions of risks, costs and health impacts. As lockdowns are lifted, policy will be crucial in determining whether mobility changes triggered by COVID-19 are positive or negative, in terms of their impacts on safety, long-term environmental and health outcomes.