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Mind the Public Transport Gap

The government's reallocation of road space to cyclists and walking, to give some relief to public transport operating under 'social distancing' measures is wise and welcome. But, warns former Transport for London MD, Leon Daniels OBE, this will not balance the effective reduction in public transport's capacity created by the 2-metre rule. It is time for more radical actions...

The publication this past few days of new Statutory Guidance under s.18 of the Transport Management Act 2004 has been widely reported. Local authorities are now required to reallocate road space in favour of pedestrians and cyclists to enable social distancing to be maintained as more people travel, anticipating some relief to the lockdown measures of the past seven weeks.

The environmental lobby, cyclists and pedestrian groups have been quick to praise these new measures which are, the Government states, designed to encourage active travel.

This in turn is intended to give relief to public transport where social distancing will need to be maintained.

Grant Shapps to spend £250m on urgent measures

Grant Shapps, leading the daily Government press Conference on Saturday 9 May, provided £250m for urgent measures to make cycling and walking safer, using temporary highway interventions, made mostly out of plastic. Further stages are expected with a total planned spend of £2bn.

There is much to commend – it has long been policy to encourage walking and cycling.

There are significant health and air quality benefits. London’s Cycle Superhighways and junction improvements took years in the making, given the requirements for consultation, legal challenges and long discussions with numerous stakeholders.

Now, because of the urgency, measures can be fast-tracked and the benefits secured quickly. However – even if every commuter, scholar or shopper who could walk/cycle did so – there is still a large gap between that number, and the theoretical capacity of our public transport system under the 2-metre social distancing requirement.

Social distancing on buses, metros and trains significantly impairs its capacity – indeed even if the social distancing requirement was magically halved, capacity would not even reach the normal off-peak demand level, never mind the peak. So, with the maximum walking and cycling output, there will still be lots of people who could not get on trains and buses if the 2-metre social distancing rule is applied. (In London alone there were, before the pandemic, 10m passengers journeys per day). To that end the Secretary of State’s announcement is silent over the practical measures which will be required on public transport.

We must also be careful to ensure these measures to reallocate road space do not clog up our streets so buses cannot get through, sharing the space as they will inevitably do with some who choose to use their cars.

Looking across to areas of China in those places where social distancing is still required on public transport a loading of around 50% is being allowed. There is some supervision at busy stops and some services are inserted part-route to create capacity downstream.

This is, of course, in a culture where the wearing of facemasks has been common for decades and is now compulsory on public transport. It seems to me that we will have to follow the transport agencies around the world and make the wearing of facemasks compulsory on our networks, and we will have to accept load factors which are much higher than the 15-20% being discussed at present.

We might also consider that personal choice and social pressure might just have to play a part Healthy young people with much lower chances of catching COVID-19 may well choose to sacrifice some of the ‘protection’ and travel in more dense conditions, whereas more vulnerable or worried people might choose to give it a miss.

A huge help would be the shifting of the morning school peak (when schools do reopen) back one hour so it no longer clashes with the adult one.

No matter how much there are measures to reserve public transport for those who need it the residual demand will still be high – those who cannot work from home, people travelling longer distances, people without alternatives, and they travel in their millions every normal day. When this lockdown is released, we need to ensure they can travel safely, and in sufficient numbers.


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