The immediate impact of the lockdown on the environment is encouraging.
While there is a public appreciation of the improved air quality and reduction in damaging emissions, the public transport sector faces a significant challenge as the lockdown is eased.
It is unclear if the Covid-19 crisis has put a potential block in the road to lower emissions or just a bump.
Will there be a longer term positive impact?
Our efforts have been focused on the challenge of Covid-19 and focus on environmental change has reduced. Looking forward, the need for sustainable transport will be tested by the post-Coronavirus recovery response. The need to return to some sense of normality and recover business losses serve as a real threat to environmental commitments.
We use the term ‘new normal’ to reflect how we are living, working and playing in this crisis. What this has meant is no non-essential travel, no non-essential shopping and many of us now working from home. The immediate impact this has had on the environment is positive. Nitrogen dioxide levels as a result of less travel have fallen dramatically. Some UK cities are experiencing a 60% drop from this time last year.
Our shops and offices will re-open again and it is then we will know the environmental legacy of this crisis. The positive environmental impact we are currently experiencing needs to endure. To make this happen, we need to ensure that options for use of public transport, are an attractive and realistic choice for commuters. When lockdown is lifted and social distancing remaining part of everyday life, public transport may not be as appealing for commuters.
Availability of trains and buses have been a key factor in getting people out of their cars but a spike in personal vehicle usage is expected. It is not only the commuters who are apprehensive. Three rail unions (ASLEF, RMT and TSSA) have written to the Prime Minister to say it is unacceptable to lift restrictions if there is increased risk to the lives of staff and passengers.
This raises important questions about public transport after Coronavirus
- How can commuters be safe and reassured?
- How do services like buses operate with social distancing measures?
- How do timetables cope with a change in demand?
- And how do we continue to make sustainable transport appealing?
Sadly, there is no easy or straight-forward answer to these questions. In noticing them and being hands-on, we can put in place plans to address or at the very least minimise their impact. It is important to look for green shoots of opportunity in this situation.
While more people might use their own vehicles, for example, there is also a chance new habits will form such as walking or cycling to work. If we act fast and put in place plans to encourage more people to do this, we can help keep our emissions at these new levels. Some countries are already doing this as they leave lockdown - Belgium has created 40 km of new cycle paths and France has announced a €20 million scheme to encourage cycling. Indeed, closer to home cyclists and pedestrians will get exclusive use of some roads in London, Manchester and Brighton to name but a few.
Public transport services need to adapt to meet these new challenges, both for service delivery and to improve their financial position, as limited numbers of commuters will be allowed on bus, train and tube services due to social distancing. Cost reduction initiatives should therefore be a priority, eliminating waste and releasing funds to invest in more environmentally sustainable technologies.
If we do not have the right policies and services in place, Government environmental targets will be missed, and we will quite literally be the road to nowhere.