All aboard?

Many of us are beginning the slow return to a more familiar way of life and in most cases, it involves some form of transport.

We may have dusted off our bicycles and walking shoes during lockdown, but it’s uncertain whether this kind of active travel will continue once we go back to our workplaces and physical meetings, when the roads are busier and the weather turns wet and cold, and when we’re all under more time pressure.

Many organisations are re-thinking the need for physical office space and many more will make the permanent switch to video and web conferencing. Others will look at staggering start and finish times to reduce the impact of the rush-hour commute (although this could just extend the ‘rush’ way beyond the ‘hour’).

All of these initiatives will help to reduce pressure on public transport in cities and larger towns, certainly to begin with. But it has the feel of a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym more – starting off with enthusiasm and tailing off when other things take priority. Assuming (as we all must) that the threat of COVID-19 dissipates over time, it’s equally likely that we will drift back into old habits and revert to our previous, comfortable patterns of behaviour.

We need to ensure that the right amount of public transport is there when we need it, and many brains are being exercised to work out how, when and whether that should be funded. As a charity on the front-line of passenger transport, we’re acutely aware of the issues involved in getting people moving again.

For very necessary reasons, there has been a move away from handling cash on buses. While this is understandable, we applaud all those operators who have taken a more inclusive approach and have continued to accept cash on an ‘exact change only’ basis. Nearly 85% of all retail transactions are still made with cash, representing around 60% of their total value. That may come as a shock to people who don’t use cash at all, but we are not ready to go cash-free in the UK just yet, and it’s estimated it could be another 15 years until it becomes a reality.

Like it or not, buses are part of the retail environment and operators need to find ways to accept cash that won’t slow them down or put anyone at risk. Otherwise we could simply be raising new barriers to travel at the very point we should be encouraging passengers back on board. Any operator desperate to avoid cash will have to put in place a payment card which costs nothing to use, can be loaded anywhere and, critically, has no minimum load. Unless, of course, they want to make it impossible for families on low incomes to travel with them…

Passengers have their part to play in ensuring a safe return to public transport, and we’ve recommended they wear face coverings if medically able to do so, and gloves. The scientific evidence for both of these things is fairly weak, but that’s mainly because people wearing gloves and masks don’t believe they need to wash or sanitise their hands. Given that people with the virus tend not to show symptoms for quite a while, it seems prudent to protect others from infection when everyone’s in close proximity – albeit socially distanced.

We also recommend people take their newspapers and rubbish away with them, for the same public-spirited reasons. Likewise, gloves and masks should be taken home for disposal and not dumped at the bus stop. There are a range of medical conditions that prevent people from wearing masks and these precautions should help to reduce the risk to them. It’s also worth bearing in mind that masks make it impossible for people with hearing impairments to lip-read, so drivers and other passengers need to be patient while explaining anything.

In fact, the changes that have been brought in to deal with the health crisis are having a number of unintended consequences for people with disabilities. People with visual impairments have been struggling with pop-up signs declaring new cycle ways or changes to street layouts, bus stops and bus services. These are usually signalled by posters, A-boards, bollards and brightly coloured tape, often too low for easy detection and confusing to guide dogs. People with learning difficulties can take considerable time to familiarise a route and huge, overnight changes can result in confusion and distress, likewise for people with dementia. The fact that the changes are often temporary just adds to the problem. Operators need to ensure that changes affecting how passengers access a vehicle or service are communicated clearly and effectively, and consulting with local groups can inform the process and mitigate the pitfalls.

Social distancing is a thorny issue for public transport. World Health Organisation’s guidelines are that 1m social distancing is sufficient in most circumstances and a move towards that in the workplace would not only increase demand for public transport, but increase capacity on board buses. We could then see a move towards service viability for operators.

When it comes to public transport, what we need at the moment is clarity, patience, and a determination to remove barriers to travel. We need to ensure that all the gains in modal shift (reduced congestion, better air quality, improved health) don’t disappear because of a short-term strategy to encourage private car use. When a third of the UK’s population has no access to a car or van, when the vast majority of public transport journeys are made by bus, and when local economies, the environment and society in general stand to benefit from reliable and accessible bus services, we need to make sure that in a post-COVID-19 world, the bus is there for all of us.

About the Author

This post was written by Claire Walters. Claire is the Chief Executive of Bus Users. Bus Users is a registered charity that campaigns for accessible, inclusive transport.

Claire Walters

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