The future of transport after Covid 19: Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

25 Jun 2020

There have been so many words written on the opportunities and challenges for the transport sector post-pandemic. Some of them by me here and here! They all have a common idea that this sector is at a crossroads where, perhaps more than in any other end-use energy sector (discuss …), the competing forces of economic spring-back and carbon reduction are so fiercely in competition with one another. Economic recovery means doing more stuff. Doing more stuff means more mobility. And on the road to recovery, fewer local jobs means travelling further to find work. Less flying abroad means more staycationing and domestic travel demand. Having a ‘civic duty’ to not use public transport, a mode already in decline Before Covid19 (‘BC’), means more use of other modes instead. For some people, this could mean resorting to buying a car.

“But,” I hear you cry, “more people will work at home and travel less on business”. And … “what about the increase in walking and cycling that has come about during lockdown”? Surely, with some electrification sprinkled on top, the transport sector might finally start to see carbon emissions come down?

Homeworking rarely leads to lower demand

During the lockdown, electricity demand fell markedly with many businesses closed. However, it’s not safe to assume that teleworking will reduce energy use in the long run, as offices and other places of work reopen. As countless previous evidence reviews can testify, including the latest from Steve Sorrell and colleagues, home working rarely leads to lower net energy demand. More energy is used at home (rarely countered by equivalent reductions in office space and energy use) and people move to live further from where they work because now they can. And the businesses themselves expand their source of workers and their geographical sphere of activity as ICT becomes integrated and synonymous with evolving business practices (see recent paper here).

Bicycles don’t seem to be a solution

As for how much weight and hope is placed on walking and cycling, don’t get me started! Of course, more active travel is a Good Thing. But only if the car travel drawbridge is pulled up behind. I will focus your minds with a pretty important but shocking statistic. In England, 2% of trips and 1% of average annual per capita travel distance is undertaken by bike (based on consistent and robust figures from the National Travel Survey). In the utopia of cycling culture – the Netherlands –  the equivalent figures are 29% and 8% respectively. That must mean that the Dutch per capita carbon footprint from travel is lower than ours, right? Wrong. The Brits and the Dutch are neck and neck in this regard (albeit only counting surface travel and excluding average per capita flights per annum where the Brits are No.1 in the world). But how can this be? Well, they too are a wealthy country. They too really like their (large) cars. They too use their cars a lot and spend most of their travel miles on leisure trips, not on the more cycling-friendly commute.

Car traffic returning

So, it is perfectly plausible that we will see more cycling AND more car use. It is therefore also possible that the transport sector could return to being the only UK sector other than agriculture and land-use change to have higher emissions now than in 1990. The recession may well lead to an extended dip in car use as we have seen historically during such times. However, car traffic in the UK is already at around 85% of its BC levels.

Focus is needed on medium and long-distance journeys

Consequently, I can see nothing that this pandemic has changed with respect to the priorities that existed beforehand. As before, the DfT’s Transport Decarbonisation strategy has to be turned into a detailed plan that clearly rejects the tautological argument that a massive expansion of road and regional airport capacity is necessary to meet inevitable increases in demand.  As before, the focus on switching urban short distance journeys to walking and cycling is laudable but often laughably superficial. As before, it is the medium and longer distance journeys that account for the vast majority of energy demand and emissions from travel – a third of all miles travelled are accounted for by only 3% of trips. As before, we know that reliance on electrification or other alternative fuels will not get us to net zero anywhere near fast enough, scrappage scheme, or no scrappage scheme. As before, the only option is to accelerate the rate at which fossil fuels are removed from the sector at the same time as shortening distances for all kinds of trips and reducing the amount that those vehicles are used. But, as before, travel demand reduction remains taboo when more mobility is a symbol of economic virility.

Don’t worry, though, because we can all go to the pub soon. Just not by public transport.