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Transport was today’s theme for this morning's webinar. Transport will be an enabler for the return to work, but thinking about how employees can move from home to work in safety is a critical problem. We were joined by a group of people who are thinking hard about how to solve it: Baroness Vere, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport (DfT), Matt Brown, Director of News and External Relations for Transport for London (TfL), Ali Clabburn, Founder and CEO of Liftshare and Matthew Fell, CBI Chief UK Policy Director.
Here’s what they discussed:
- The current state of the transport system
- What can employers do to help workers stay safe?
- Communication and confidence in public transport
- Local solutions: cities and elsewhere
- Innovative and sustainable solutions.
The current state of the transport system
Transport is a “one of the biggest themes and questions” for businesses thinking about the transition to the restart and recovery phase, said Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director at the CBI. But already we are seeing some challenges for public transport. The need for two metre social distancing is proving to be a big challenge, noted Baroness Charlotte Vere, this measure has had a “huge impact on the capacity of our transport infrastructure,” she said with most services only able to run at around 15 to 25% capacity.
The recent government advice on the return to work for people who cannot work from home has caused some uplift in demand for public transport, but this has only risen by a small amount. Demand has “gone up a little but it’s not been a big quantum leap,” said Matthew Fell, “people are playing this very sensibly.” Charlotte expects that work from home recommendations and social distancing requirements will be in place for "quite a long time," advising that restrictions would likely remain in place for 6-12 months.
In London this week, services are running at 85% on buses and 75-80% on the tube, according to Matt Brown from TfL. With social distancing measures in place, they will be able to carry about 13-15% of the usual capacity of passengers. At present, the number of riders on the tube is standing at around 8% of normal passenger levels.
What can employers do to help workers stay safe?
“We really need you to think about your workforce and think about how they travel,” said Charlotte. Both Charlotte and Matthew Fell agreed that facilitating working from home would remain an important part of the mix of solutions. But for businesses with employees returning to work, staggering commuting patterns and making it easier for employees to walk, run and cycle to work by offering access to changing facilities, showers, bike storage and so on will also be important.
Ali Clabburn of Liftshare noted that some companies are setting up their own versions of public transport such as shuttle buses, allowing them to be confident about social distancing and the safety of their employees. But cycling and walking are also being encouraged, with more employers adding cycle racks, for example. He stressed that business now need to be thinking and planning for employee travel: “Very simply, employers right now need to go through the government guidelines to do their risk assessments to see how many of their staff need to come to work. They need to go through their travel planning process.”
Communication and confidence
“The most important thing will be communication,” said Charlotte, both from the government and from employers. Businesses need to help their employees understand the current environment, she said, by passing on public health messages about wearing face coverings, washing hands and not touching one’s face.
Transport companies such as Network Rail and TfL have introduced enhanced cleaning regimes in trains and stations, said Charlotte. Although passengers also have a responsibility to keep themselves safe by bringing hand sanitiser if they expect there will not be washing facilities, for example.
Matt Brown explained that TfL has recently rolled out an extensive communications campaign with advice for businesses and employees about how to get to work in the capital. TfL has introduced posters and signage about social distancing and is encouraging the use of face coverings too.
One solution which the public have some confidence in is liftsharing, explained Ali. “Interestingly the public perception of sharing a car with a colleague hasn’t really changed. People generally feel safer sharing with someone that they know rather than jumping on to public transport.”
Local solutions: cities and elsewhere
Transport planning and the solutions needed will differ depending on the mix of businesses and living arrangements in different parts of the country: “We need to have really targeted and local solutions,” says Matthew Fell.
He explained that London “has an exceptionally high reliance on public transport” while other parts of the country such as Cambridge, Oxford, Swindon, Bristol and Reading have a lot of businesses where employees can work from home and less reliance on public transport.
Meanwhile, places like Birmingham, Hull, Wakefield, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Nottingham have a high reliance on public transport and lower possibilities for remote working. He said the businesses will need to work together with local government and transport providers to understand how they can manage demand for public transport for their employees.
Cities like London and Manchester have similar challenges for managing their public transport systems. Both the tube and the Metro Link network face issues such as managing capacity at interchange stations and on platforms, said Charlotte.
For large parts of the country, the car is the dominant mode of transport for workers, explained Ali. Lift sharing with the same colleague each day with the windows open for ventilation and safe distance between the driver and the passenger could be a viable solution for locations and businesses less well-served by public transport or in places where the capacity and safety of public transport is reduced, he argued.
Innovative and sustainable solutions
Transport could play an important role as we aim to “build back better” said Matthew Fell. “Sustainability is a core thread.” This was echoed by Charlotte who noted that the DfT has a “green recovery plan.”
For example, the DfT and TfL are both looking at ways of reshaping roads to accomodate more pedestrians and cyclists. Although some of these solutions are temporary, if they prove successful they could be more permanent, said Charlotte.
In London, extended cycle routes, widened pavements and pedestrianised areas are beginning to be rolled out. Matthew Brown hopes that as people begin to cycle and walk more these measures “will be well used and well liked going forward.”
Other innovative solutions could be provided by thinking about spaces differently. Matthew Fell mentioned the idea of repurposing out of town car parks for hotels and retail parks as car parking hubs from which employees can walk or cycle to work.
Key questions we answered:
- Matthew, what should businesses be thinking about in terms of getting people back to work and reopening offices soon?
- Employees should be working from home where possible.
- However, employers will have to consider the impact this period of working from home has had on employees and helping workers to understand how they should react to being delayed or unable to travel will be important.
- Examples of steps that businesses are already considering include:
- Stagger shifts to ease the rush hour burden
- Assess commutes to understand how they may be impacted by reduced services
- Communicate with staff around alternative transport options e.g. cycling.
- Employers need to make the call on what’s best for their own workers and organisations, but the government’s advice is to work from home.
- Being open and transparent with workers around why certain decisions have been taken will be the cornerstone of a successful return to work.
- Over the last few months, we’ve had to learn new ways of living and working, what impacts will these have on transport networks?
- COVID-19 will likely have a long-term impact on what people expect from the journey to work.
- The experience of working from home and the pandemic has dented public confidence in using public transport networks, and it may take a long time for this to recover.
- Recent data from a survey by SYSTRA found that 20% plan to make fewer trips by public transport after travel restrictions are lifted, rising to 27% for those who use rail to commute.
- Commuters are likely to want more flexible travel options, allowing them to travel more freely throughout the day and working week.
- The government and operators going to have to encourage commuters to avoid a rapid uptake of cars to mitigate against a potentially large rise in congestion and pollution.
- Discussions about the planned reforms of the public transport network may have to be updated and accelerated to match the new demand.
- As we look to restart transport networks over the coming six to twelve months, businesses and government will have to discuss who will carry the cost presented by sustained low passenger numbers. Will this mean fare rises or longer term government intervention?
- Employers will need to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how their employees use transport networks and to what extent they can be flexible as they return to work.
- Baroness Vere, what is the government asking from employers on this issue?
- Businesses can help their employees understand that the landscape has changed.
- Relaying messages such as washing your hands and don’t touch your face is the single most important thing we can do to stop the spread of the virus.
- Social distancing is an important step, which has huge implications for the transport sector.
- We need businesses to consider things like staggered start times for employees. If we can encourage employees to walk, run or cycle to work, that would help ensure we avoid the daily morning rush hour peak.
- We also need to encourage people to use face coverings more. The science doesn’t show that it makes a huge difference, but it does give people confidence – and any measure that builds confidence should be encouraged.
- Matt, what is TfL’s latest thinking on how you will meet the challenge of regulating demand and matching it with social distancing?
- We’re getting our services back up to 100% operation as soon as possible. This week we ran at 85% capacity on the buses, and 75% on the underground.
- Even if we reach 100% operational capability, due to the social distancing obligations we can only carry around 15% of the normal number of people. So, we have been echoing the message of encouraging people to work from home and staggering start times.
- For those who do have to travel, we have tried to make things as safe as possible. Hand sanitisers are being rolled out across the network and we’re urging people to wear face coverings.
- How does TfL regulate passenger demand?
- We have one-way queuing systems across key stations in London. This will be the case for the foreseeable future.
- A key problem is that a lot of our stations are interchange stations. You can have people queuing in an orderly fashion to get through the barriers, but if you are at an interchange station, trains arrive on platforms every few minutes with tunnels leading to different lines.
- Each station has its own management plan, but it is a case of trying to limit the number of people using the network.
- To put this into perspective, when we hosted the Olympic games in 2012, we implemented a challenge to reduce people using the network by 20% to mitigate the influx of tourists London received. Today, we are implementing that same challenge, but our target is to reduce the percentage of people using the network by 80%.
- We want people to really think carefully about their journey.
- Baroness Vere, often on commuter trains the bathrooms don’t work or have no water in them. Is there a role for government to ensure those basic, public health measures are rectified?
- It absolutely is and it is something we are interested in. We have implemented enhanced cleaning in train stations, and on the trains themselves. I know that TfL have a huge cleaning regime that uses long-term antiviral cleaning fluids.
- My advice to passengers is that, if possible, please bring hand sanitiser with you in case there is nowhere safe to wash your hands.
- Ali, how has your business been affected by social distancing guidelines?
- Public perception of sharing a car with a colleague hasn’t really changed. People feel safer travelling with people they know rather than using public transport.
- However, car use is down by 50% at the moment so the numbers are down.
- We’re seeing a big social change in how people perceive travel. Many more of our members are working from home when they can.
- Ali, what kind of innovations have caught your eye recently?
- Electric scooters will have a role to play, as they can fold up and be carried from door to door.
- Employers are also setting up their own shuttle buses with social distancing implemented.
- The big wins are for cycling and hopefully walking, with many more employers installing cycle racks outside their offices.
- For those who live too far away to cycle or walk into work, we found 92% of people live near to a colleague who they could car-share with.
- Baroness Vere, will you try to push through any of these innovations?
- We are looking at this area with great interest.
- We’ve brought forward electric scooter trials, and we expect to announce the areas they will be trialled in very soon.
- We had a roundtable with 25 technology companies, asking them to think about how we could use real time data to show people potential travel ‘hotspots’.
- Baroness Vere, do you envisage a re-shaping of our roads to create cycling or scooter lanes?
- It has already started, and there will be a significant temporary change.
- All new local authorities have been issued with road reallocation guidance. We want them to consider pedestrian and walking areas.
- We have also changed the traffic orders which will make it easier for local authorities to put these methods in.
- They are temporary measures but if they work, we will consider making them permanent.
- Baroness Vere, how will privately run public transport companies remain financially viable if social distancing measures are in place?
- We already bailed out TfL due to the shortfall in revenue. We have also supported private bus operators to get them back up to 50% of services. This amounts to £400 million.
- This is a difficult situation, but we are doing what we can to support those companies.