Air QualityEnvironment & ClimateFossil Fuels

How will public transport use change as the UK heads towards to a ‘new normal’?

By May 12, 2020 No Comments

Travel restrictions in the UK during the COVID19 pandemic have not only seen dramatic decreases in the use of public transport & at the start of lockdown, in personal car usage; but we have also seen considerable reductions in GHG emissions.

It has been reported that China saw a 25% reduction in GHG emissions during the period January to March at the height of the Chinese pandemic. It has also been reported that Europe will see it’s GHG emissions tumble, as lockdowns have shuttered businesses, industry & sent millions of workers home.

However, these reductions in GHG emissions may well be short lived, as countries slowly come out of lockdown & begin to reboot their economies, entering as the UK are calling a ‘new normal’; industries will ramp up production to help repair the damage to their countries’ economies.

One of the areas we have seen a considerable reduction in emissions is the use of public transport, personal cars & business vehicles.

However, despite the use of public transport, in particular in the UK capital London, having seen reductions down to some 5% of the usual usage since the lockdown; one area of concern for the public transport sector going forward, is the concerns people have about social distancing & a future COVID19 spike.

A survey of 3000 participants by Auto Trader found that nearly half of UK public transport users (48%) said they would be less likely to use it once lockdown restrictions have been lifted (2) & of those surveyed some 56% who do not currently own a car, would consider their personal transport options & personal space considerations, by purchasing a car.

The UK Government have spent years building an increased capacity for public transport, investing in new forms of cleaner fuel vehicles to ensure the GHG emissions reduction targets are met. One of the biggest challenges facing the automotive & haulage industries, is how to produce clean fuel vehicles for a net zero future. From Hydrogen & electric buses, electric taxi cabs to biofuels & CNG, the focus has been clearly on moving away from an entirely fossil fuelled based public transport system.

The most recent Department of Transport paper Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challenge, has laid out specific was for transportation in the UK to meet zero emissions targets.

Their focus for the public transport sector considers Buses, Rail, Aviation, Cars, cycling & Walking as ways of ‘moving people’ & looks at their emissions by mode.

The ‘Department of Transport paper Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challenge’ identifies that  ‘The majority of the trips we make annually are for leisure, including trips to visit friends, attend sports events, for holidays and day trips, followed by commuting and journeys for work or business purposes. (3)

Cars are the most common mode of transport regardless of the journey type. 94% of these car journeys are under 25 miles, with 58% under five miles in 201816. 87% of car users in England are of the view that their current lifestyle means they need to own a car. (3)

This data is naturally of concern & to combat these high car usage figures & ahead of the COVID19 pandemic, the UK Government had already announced in February 2020 a £5 billion investment in local buses, cycling & walking infrastructure, which also included funding for 4000 zero emission buses. (3)

We have already seen the environmental benefits of Hydrogen, electric & hybrid public transport options, however, what does the fuelled public transport sector’s future look like when so many previous patrons of these forms of transport are frightened of catching COVID19 & creating a second spike to the virus?

One of the areas which has seen a marked increase in travel, is the use of bicycles. Bicycle sales in the UK have soared during the COVID19 lockdown as people use them as an alternative mode of transport for work & exercise. Cities across the UK & Europe have been allocating extra road space for walkers & cyclists alike, to assist with social distancing measures.

In Germany, expanded cycle lanes have been marked by removable tape and mobile signs. Paris is rolling out 650 kilometres of cycleways, including a number of pop-up “corona cycleways”. Some cities, like Milan, are making the changes permanent. (4)

The UK Governments manifesto included £350 million to support a cycling infrastructure to help reduce emission. During the UK lockdown, the sales of bicycles have increased exponentially, with a 200% increase in bicycle sales from UK emergency workers taking advantage of the Government ‘cycle-to-work’ & retailer Halfords seeing a 23% share increase, due to bicycle sales. (4)

The emissions surrounding cycling speak for themselves. Apart from the carbon footprint of the build of the bicycle itself, the usage daily could have a dramatic impact on international emissions.

One of the main concerns for the transitional lifting of lockdown measures, are the concerns for public safety on public transport. The projected sudden upsurge in personal transport (namely cars/vans) could hamper the Road to Net Zero plans for the UK & the essential global effort in reducing carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement & the scientific data from the IPCC.

It is hoped that of the many lessons learned during the COVID19 pandemic, that the need for a more effective use of zero emissions commuter options, while we also consider how the ‘new normal’ will affect all of our daily lives.

Written by Katy-Jane Mason, for & on behalf of Dolphin N2