Travel Patterns after Lockdown Ends

Land Travel Pattern Changes After Lockdown


by Anna Semlyen MSc, 20’s Plenty for Us National Campaign Manager, Cutting Your Car Use author. 7 April 2020

Boosting walking and cycling by population level policies such as slower speeds and a 20mph national limit matter now and long term for traffic reduction and the climate.

Public transport travel has nosedived. It will be hard to bounce back meaning car use may rise.  

We must keep vulnerable road users feeling protected from serious injury.

The Covid-19 crisis lockdown has reduced UK motor traffic mileage by about 40%[1] - an unprecedented success in traffic reduction, clean air and climate terms!  Roads are fairly empty of cars and so mostly feel cleaner, quieter, more respectful.  Now provides a vision to believe in better, even though some drivers are speeding on the mostly clear roads.

Yet, when movement restrictions are lifted, what travel patterns will emerge? If this contagious disease has lasting effects on our willingnesss to use public transport, its operators and service frequency, policies like a National 20mph speeds limit which particularly benefit walking and cycling now and in the future are more crucial for health, air quality and the climate than ever.

Commuters have been forbidden non-essential travel and especially non-essential public transport use as it’s impossible to maintain a social distance of 2m.  The result has been a boom in cycling and walking to work and for exercise and rightly so.

Air pollution from motor traffic is down. Good news as its the unseen killer of 64,000[2] of us per year - more even than smoking and especially the kind of people with respiratory problems that Covid-19 attacks.

What next? My guess on future travel patterns after lockdown follow. Home working will remain more popular than before. Video conferencing will retain a much stronger element of work patterns. Physical travel to meet will reduce.  People have learnt skills and the new norm of video conference meetings is being established. It’s great for traffic reduction and the climate. Staying still is a fine solution to climate change issues.

Home delivery services have grown. They are helpful long term in reducing travel overall and so appear climate friendly.  But there are downsides. Big players will certainly have cornered this market. As small traders suffer there’s a negative economic spiral which is bad for our climate. Huge online stores have long delivery chains. They are adept at offering rock bottom prices due to zero hours contracts, few worker rights and tax avoidance.   Little money trickles down to the local economy or national government meaning that profits go to a few billionaires.

Will public transport bounce back enough to maintain reasonable patronage and service levels? Certainly not on most routes – and not until there is a Covid-19 vaccine (over a year away).  Passengers will remain for strong demand routes like inter-city or where people travel long enough distances and have little choice like in London.  Marginal services, e.g. rural buses, by their definition, struggle at the best of times.  Next, they will require huge subsidies or be cut meaning accessibility will be hard for those rural dwellers with few public transport options, or anyone without personal car access or able to use a bike or e-bike or afford a taxi. It’s very sad news for those who care about social equality between those who can drive and access a vehicle and others. The rural poor without a car are somewhat stuck and so are attempts to reduce the climate impact of people’s increasingly car dependent lives.

Will there be a rush to buy cars? Probably. Cars (and mobility vehicles and electric bicycles) offer solutions to increasing remoteness from public transport issues and as a personal sort of bubble against shared travel infection from others. This will, I think, happen as soon as lockdown ends even though people will be in a poor economic position to pay for the luxury of buying or running a car.  The elderly or those shielding with health problems won’t want to return to public transport anytime soon.

‘Escort driving elderly parents’ or buying vulnerable family members personal transport and driving lessons will rise high in many family’s minds by lockdown end. It’s very bad for the active exercise health of those previously shielded at home - a huge public health negative of its own quite apart from the climate implications of more short trip car use.  Those people will suffer from less practice at walking, so weakening their bone density and balance skills and the likelihood of more falls at home. Plus there’s a potential safety problem from more novice drivers with health problems on the roads, especially prone to driver errors. Slower speeds through National 20mph speed limit can help them to make fewer, and less costly errors and protect other road users. Jams will increase.

Shared car use won’t be so popular is my guess because of issues of contagion fear and cleaning it well enough in between users. Neither will shared e-bikes or e-scooters (when they are ever legalised), unless all new users are prepared to do their own cleaning with eg with disinfectant wipes.

Many are walking, cycling, scooting and jogging more partly because the motor traffic fell so it feels safer. It feels healthier as the air is cleaner. Motor traffic noise is lower. Yes, it was also because they are two of the only limited choices of outdoor exercise along with jogging. Also going out is a way to, from 2m away, connect, in real life, to faces other than those we are locked in with, thereby reducing loneliness.

Will walking and cycling retain their growth in popularity with a significant proportion of people who didn’t previously walk or cycle much?  I really hope so! Some will go back to other exercise forms of course.  But this better vision of the future for commuting for instance and future school travel will only be realised if we tackle people’s fears of personal danger risks.  Especially those arising from an expected surge in motoring returning close to pre lockdown levels or maybe even increasing (with people not using public transport as often). 

Promoting raised long term daily walking and cycling is therefore even more crucial than ever.  20mph limits are definitely part of the solution. A new national speed limit is needed now, not just to take pressure off NHS with avoidable crash patients for the lower the baseline campaign[3], but for the sake of the future of green transport and the climate too. We’ve got to flatten that other curve of heating up the world.

A national 20mph limit matters now and after lockdown ends. It will help people to stay healthy by walking and cycling and further reduce the need for hospital beds caused by heart disease and other conditions exacerbated by inactivity. It’s a way for us and the climate to continue to reap the benefits of the safer, quieter, less polluted, better streets we have mostly experienced in lockdown - with the exception of a few selfish drivers who sped up.


[1] 3 April 2020



Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.