Public transport and future pandemics – is there a Plan B?

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By Dr Steve Melia, Senior Lecturer in Planning and Transport

Demand for trains is likely to rise again “assuming at some point there will be a vaccine and we will return to some sort of normal” said the Chief Executive of HS2 recently. His assumption might be right, but vaccines are rarely 100% effective. What if they don’t eradicate the risk and social distancing continues to constrain the capacity of public transport? Many ecologists are now warning that human interference with natural systems will cause more pandemics in future. What would happen to public transport if pandemics and social distancing became a recurring feature of 21st century life? What is Plan B?

Six months after the lockdown caused patronage to collapse, I was going to write about the strange silence of the transport world on these questions. But perhaps that silence is not so strange. Whose interests would it serve to acknowledge those possibilities? Whose ideology would it bolster? Clearly not the public transport industry or its supporters. Nor would it help the petrolheads’ case for unrestrained driving. So, at the risk of provoking the ire of all sides, I want to consider what might happen and how we might collectively respond if public transport remains constrained in the longer-term.

A few articles on these questions, from elsewhere in the world, have raised the nightmare scenario, where fear of infection causes people to shun public transport and flee cities, reversing the past few decades of urban regeneration. In countries like the USA and Australia with low population densities, that would gently accelerate the spread of car-based sprawl, which had slowed but never stopped. In Britain, and particularly England, that prospect would be far more serious. As I have written elsewhere, the claim that England has plenty of land available for development without destroying what remains of our natural environment is unfortunately untrue.

In recent decades, UK governments have tempered their push for more house building with planning policies encouraging densification of central urban areas. I am looking at the result of that strategy through my window in central Bristol – 375 flats on a site the size of a football pitch with only a handful of parking spaces. This type of urban intensification depends on high-capacity public transport for new residents, who will be unable to own cars because there is no space for them. Remove that capacity and the densification of cities will become unviable. Rural areas will suburbanise and suburban roads will fill with congested traffic.

Social distancing regulations are not the only problem; Covid has reduced people’s willingness to travel in close proximity to others. When I have asked people in the industry: ‘what if things don’t return to normal?’ their answers are all around funding, which is hardly a solution for the long-term. I recently met a government transport official who had considered the longer-term risks. He said “there is no solution”, and within life as we know it, he is right. Trains and railway stations could conceivably be converted to allow people to travel in separate compartments without inhaling each others’ breath, but at a cost that would make HS2 look like a bargain. Buses would have to be replaced by some entirely different type of vehicle. The capacity of both would be permanently reduced, which would not solve the problem. People could continue to drive cars but not at higher concentrations in urban areas, so they wouldn’t solve the problem either.

If there is a workable Plan B it would have to transform both public and private transport. The early hype around autonomous vehicles has subsided as researchers (including some of my colleagues) have shown how some of the barriers to full automation cannot be solved by technology alone. To allow autonomous vehicles to interact with pedestrians in dense urban areas would require big changes to the way we organise our cities. Whether those changes are made or not, we can expect incremental automation such as platooning on motorways.

Putting all those factors together with the imperative to decarbonise transport we could imagine a world where autonomous electric pods, smaller than today’s cars, follow a network more limited than today’s roads. They could travel at low speeds through urban areas until they join interurban networks, where they could travel in platoons at higher speeds. Similar principles could transform the way we move freight into, out of, and between urban areas. If you think that vans and lorries are the only ways of moving freight around cities, take a look at Joel Crawford’s books about carfree cities. Such a system could replace the motorway and rail networks, reducing the overall land-take of transport networks. I float that idea, not as “the solution”, but to illustrate the scale of the transformation that Plan B might require.

Of course, we might be lucky; Covid-19 might fade into history and future pandemics might be more benign – or not, so where does that leave us in the meantime?

The case for joined-up cycle routes and traffic-free environments for walking remains relevant under any conceivable scenario. So will the need to remove or replace vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Road building remains a damaging option under any scenario. But should we be pressing ahead with plans to build big public transport infrastructure at this moment? Is it possible to genuinely future-proof such infrastructure?

My colleague Professor Glenn Lyons has written some useful articles about planning in uncertain situations. But on the specific questions I can give no definitive answers; I can point you to no relevant research. I can only conclude that we must break the silence and start treating these possibilities more seriously.

This article was first published in Transport Times

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