Chris Richards, Director of Policy at the Institution of Civil Engineers, looks at the changes to how we travel, if any, Covid-19 will leave in its wake…

The measures taken to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 have been unprecedented in modern times. Complete sectors of the economy have been shut down and much of the population are working from home as Britain seeks to control the spread of the coronavirus. This action carries implications for how the UK’s infrastructure system is used and paid for, both in the short and medium term.

Already we have seen transport authorities such as Transport for London requiring grants and loans from central government to keep services running. Daily briefings from Number 10 have also shown starkly what has happened to transport demand – public transport use is down, while car use and cycling are climbing.

Underlying this shift is not just a stay at home message, but also a trust factor, public transport is shared, driving and cycling (and walking) is deemed to be a safer way to travel to protect yourself from the virus.

But not everyone can own a car, cycle, or walk, so we’ll need to get public transport back into use, particularly if we are to address some of our bigger challenges such as decarbonisation.

As the easing of the lockdown begins, it is overcoming this lack of trust factor which will be important. Our initial survey of the public shows this will be a mountain to overcome, with 44 per cent of UK adults likely to avoid travelling on public transport networks and 61 per cent of those in London likely to avoid using the Underground. In addition, 61 per cent of UK adults support increasing the frequency of remote working.

As we transition to a reset phase, measures like face masks on public transport will be needed to overcome the fear and rebuild trust, and announcements by Government in this regard are an important step. These and other measures will be intended to be short-term, but it is worthwhile to consider the implications for the future.

Infrastructure projects and programmes, particularly for transport, take a long time to plan and deliver and require investment. Regardless of whether this investment is large or small, there is still an opportunity cost associated with it.

This is why so much analysis and forecasting has to be done for transport, what is often described as predict and provide. The key ambition behind this forecasting is to ensure time, energy and money is not wasted designing and building, for example, a bridge, if by the time it is built, no one needs to cross it. So, the key question is what impact will Covid-19 have on future need? Can any of this be predicted now?

To answer these questions, it is best to split our time horizon into two phases. The post-lockdown, pre-vaccine phase and the post-vaccine phase.

In the initial period, we’ll need to focus on new arrangements for intra-city travel, changes to how transport modes are used and also unlocking any new capacity that is required for safe cycling and walking. Some of this work has already started. For the post-vaccine phase the long-term demand drivers of population growth, decarbonisation and urbanisation will still be in play to determine what infrastructure needs to be prioritised and brought forward.

The timing of a vaccine and the potential impacts of any second wave of the virus would all play a part in determining the impact on transport networks, their use and future capacity demand.

Waiting to see which way the wind blows is one option, another more game-changing option is to refocus on how, whatever the outcome, we can deliver improved transport infrastructure in the future.

We’ve known for some time about the productivity and demographic challenges within construction and the wider built environment sector. Both will have been impacted by Covid-19 and any ongoing requirements for social distancing during the post-lockdown, pre-vaccine phase. This impact will also come at a time when we need to use infrastructure both to stimulate the recovery but also repurpose what is needed in the short term to allow people to travel. Speed, value for money and certainty of need will be key variables. Increasing certainty and reducing time to deliver should be the objectives, and within that there are opportunities to do things differently.

We will need frameworks for identification of what societal outcomes are needed at national, regional and local levels because the more we understand about what is needed and how infrastructure systems can support that, through either changes in operation, upgrades or renewal, the more certainty we will have about what needs to be delivered.

The National Infrastructure Commission exists to identify the long-term strategic infrastructure need, but we will require regional infrastructure strategies too, to identify the regional drivers of demand. Both will need to be backed up by data and take a ‘system of systems’ view as to what is needed, rather than a siloed project view. Enacting these changes could see a radical improvement in how long it takes us to go from conception to ‘ready to deliver’.

Secondly, we will need to change business models to speed up delivery and improve productivity.

The Infrastructure Client Group’s Project 13 has been spearheading change through clients by changing business models away from a transactional approach towards a more collaborative one. By bringing all the key actors together through an enterprise, entire supply chains can be realigned around outcomes leading to improved productivity and value.

Other issues need to be given a greater push as well, with modern methods of construction such as offsite manufacturing needed to drive up productivity in the delivery of new infrastructure projects.

The Infrastructure Client Group and ICE’s work as part of the Construction Leadership Council’s Industry Recovery Plan seeks to answer the question – how can we take best practice in addressing these challenges of uncertainty and productivity, and turn them into common practice by taking decisive action now?

With so much uncertainty about the future demand for infrastructure, reducing the time it takes to deliver and lowering the cost of delivery will both be important steps in ensuring that, whatever the future looks like, the public can continue to get the infrastructure they need.

Chris is Director of Policy at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and is responsible for the transfer of insights and recommendations from ICE to decision-makers, to ensure society gets the infrastructure it needs and can trust it will be delivered.

As Director with responsibility for ICE positions and external political messages, he reports to the Director General. Prior to working at ICE, Chris held several senior positions including Head of Business Environment Policy at EEF as well as key policy roles at the IET and Royal Academy of Engineering.