Dealing with risk – any risk – is somewhat like waiting for a bus. For long periods, nothing appears then, suddenly, several appear at the same time.
First, there is the Brexit bus of uncertainty slowly trundling down the road. Out of nowhere appears the swerving Coronavirus bus of health and economic disruption. Following closely behind is the Climate mega-bus of environmental change. All these buses present city and business leaders with not only severe dangers but also new opportunities. Each danger requires from the driver someone who can choose the right route and steer the vehicle down the road while avoiding the ditch. Overattention to the rear-view mirror will not guarantee safe arrival at any destination. There is one certainty in all the risks mentioned: that is the fact that there will be no return to the status quo ante. We are in a new set of circumstances that require both mitigation (to reduce the impacts) and adaptation (to cater for the new order).
What will the new normal look like and, perhaps more pertinently, what do we want it to look like? A lot has changed in the world of work, retail and leisure, all of which have big implications for travel. Working from home as a full-time or part-time alternative to commuting, online shopping as an alternative to the city high street, and less complex global supply chains are just a few of the changes that are already baked in. To answer this question, we need to take a step back and consider an even bigger threat to our way of life than Covid-19 which is, of course, the climate emergency.
The global impact of the pandemic has been unprecedented but the disruption we have suffered will look insignificant by comparison to the rapidly unfolding havoc wrought by climate change if we don’t act now. This means that we must take decisions now to seize the golden opportunity afforded by the lockdown to have a green reset and build ‘forward’ better. At a recent webinar organised by Resilience First, we considered how to get London moving again with our partners from Transport for London (TfL) and Atkins.During the webinar, Vernon Everitt, Managing Director, Customers, Communication and Technology at TfL, made clear that it was untenable for the recovery from Covid-19 to be allowed to be based around the internal combustion engine and called strongly for a return to mobility based around public transport, cycling and walking instead.
Pandemics are nothing new to London or to the capital’s transport networks. Shortly after the creation of public transport in London, a cholera epidemic reached London claiming over 6,500 victims in 1832. The pandemic in 2020 has highlighted the complexity and vulnerability of a modern transport system in a major city like London. Without any physical damage to the system itself, the virus has wreaked havoc on a fare-revenue system that has traditionally sustained the network. The result has been a large cash injection from the government to sustain it for the short term but we have to find a sustainable model to take us forward into the medium and long term.
Technology is undoubtedly one of the answers. Maryrose Page, Chief Engineer, Transportation at Atkins, who chaired the webinar, told us that TfL’s open data-sharing policy supports SMEs and the supply chain in developing mobility-as-a-service applications and the Internet of Things. For her, the challenge is to move from a reactive stance to proactive engagement with technology innovations. According to Maryrose Page, London has kept moving through the pandemic, albeit at a different pace, but with a new green recovery backdrop which she welcomed considering the climate agenda. For her, the challenge now is to understand the ‘new normal’ demands and build on the green recovery momentum with technological innovations.
Vernon Everitt from TfL told us that the pandemic has turned their business on its head. At one point, Tube ridership was down to about three per cent of normal and buses were down to about 10 to 15 per cent of normal ridership. That is the lowest level of travel they have seen in 100 years. As lockdown restrictions are eased, TfL has brought in extensive measures that will continue to provide a clean, safe and reliable network for customers and staff.
In fact, buses and trains have never been cleaner, with socially distanced travellers more conscious of others. Prior to the second lockdown, ridership had recovered to nearly 40 per cent on Tube and 60 per cent on buses. Post-lockdown, TfL is asking customers to plan ahead and travel during the quiet times after the morning rush hour and before the evening one on weekdays, and during the morning and in the evening on weekends on public transport.
The danger is that, as normal life resumes, travellers will take to their cars to avoid what they see as the risk of using public transport modes, and by insulating themselves and their families inside what they see as the secure bubble of their car. So, decisions need to be taken now to ensure that this does not happen. Vernon Everitt told us that we must ensure London’s recovery is clean, green and sustainable.
If people shift to using their cars his view is that the city will grind to a halt and the progress that has been made in improving air quality will reverse. To reduce congestion and improve air quality, TfL has reintroduced the Congestion Charge and applied it seven days a week and extended its hours on a temporary basis.
It has already announced that as from October 2021 the ULEZ zone will be extended to the whole of the north and south circular zone. In the longer term, the view from TfL and from Resilience First is that the strategic direction for London and other major cities around the UK has to be founded on high-quality public transport and more active travel facilities like walking and cycling.
Real money needs to be put behind the walking and cycling agenda and a sustainable funding model must be found for public transport to get it through the period until passenger numbers recover, which is likely to be a long-term proposition.
London’s public transport is not alone in facing difficult times. Without government or federal help, transport services in many cities will be reduced, resulting in less frequent and potentially more crowded trains and buses which will, in turn, force people back onto the roads, exacerbating gridlock, and eventually encouraging people to move away from the city and seek employment elsewhere. It could be a vicious spiral of decline.
That must to be arrested. Hence, the pandemic has provided a golden opportunity to achieve a green reset that will put transport modes on a sustainable, resilient long-term footing that addresses the imperatives for the climate emergency.
We must seize the day to promote active travel and public transport above the legacy mode of the internal combustion engine. Resilience First is a not-for-profit business organisation that aims to improve business resilience in urban areas. It was launched in June 2018 and since then has gained a range of international champions and associates who all believe that resilience can be better delivered by collaborative working through communities. www.resiliencefirst.org