Locale : Global (English)
Back to work in a post-COVID world
Targeting the right people and persuading them to opt for active travel is critical.
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Back to work in a post-COVID world – do the Olympics hold the key to a safe and successful return?

Worldwide, cities are coming out of coronavirus lockdown for a phased safe return to work. One of the greatest challenges is travelling while following social distancing rules. It involves operating public transport with greatly reduced capacity. Significant changes in travel behaviour are needed.

For weeks, people across the globe have been socially distancing themselves from others. As governments start to lift the lockdown, maintaining the 2m rule is one of the biggest challenges for transport ministers and public transport operators. Simply, any mass transit will carry many fewer passengers – by some estimates 90% fewer.

At the start of May UK news media reported that, with 2m social distancing, London Underground would be able to carry only 200,000 passengers per hour, compared to 1.3M pre-COVID. Take any city in the UK with a turn-up-and-go metro, light rail or tram service and a similar capacity reduction applies. On pre-bookable rail people can be seated observing the 2m rule but, again, enormous carrying capacity is lost. Across all public transport modes, in London and cities globally, demand will exceed capacity as people return to work.

Spreading the load

On 9 May UK transport minister Grant Shapps announced a strategy for safely returning people to work. A pivotal part of it is to balance demand with reduced system capacity. Lessons for achieving this balance can be learned from cities that have hosted major sporting and cultural events. Those that host Olympiads must grapple with substantially increased passenger numbers, within the limits of their existing transport infrastructure. They use a pragmatic and systematic discipline known as travel demand management (TDM) that has been proved to keep cities moving in the UK and elsewhere in the world. TDM offers a means of getting society and economies back on the move in this period of unprecedented capacity reduction.

TDM starts with data – about routes, transport modes, capacity, demand distribution and performance. Data enables modelling of potential supply and demand, and journey options, that can be communicated to travellers and key stakeholders, to inform travel choices.

The four Rs

In 2012 the London Olympics used one of the first macro TDM programmes to successfully manage travel across all city networks and modes, keeping London moving at a time of exceptional pressure. It changed the behaviour of approximately 35% of transport users, freeing capacity for millions of visitors. The programme used four Rs to accomplish this, encouraging travellers to:

  • Reduce – work from home, work from a non-city centre base, take leave
  • Retime – travel outside busy peak times
  • Remode – use modes of travel that are less busy, cycle and walk if possible
  • Reroute – choose a route to avoid congestion

The four Rs messaging is mirrored in advice currently being given by governments across the world. The Olympics proved it to be practical and effective.

To be successful TDM requires data on transport capacity, a systematic programme of activity, clear messaging and comprehensive engagement. The Olympic approach was easy to understand and simple to use. It involved:

  • modelling data to understand which parts of the public transport network were busy and when
  • modelling how people should travel (considering different routes and times) to ease pressure on networks
  • providing travel options to suit different travelling needs, enabling every traveller to make informed choices.

By showing how busy the system was, when and where, giving information about cycling and walking distances from major train stations to commuter districts, and informing people which roads were closed and when, TDM enabled travellers to decide what was best for them.

As well as the media, successful TDM campaigns harness the power of intermediaries such as employers and councils to provide accurate and trustworthy information to travellers.

In summer 2012 Londoners cycled and walked, travelled at quieter times, used routes they were advised were less busy, worked from home, worked from satellite offices outside of the epicentre of the Games, avoided the busy Olympic Route Network, and drove less.

All of which we need to achieve in the coming months as economies reopen.

Since 2012, macro-scale TDM has been used at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2018 Australian Gold Coast Games. Away from major events, it was brilliantly effective in keeping Sydney and Melbourne moving during lengthy periods of construction of a light rail system and a metro route, which caused major disruption on both cities’ roads: in Sydney the Travel Choices campaign focused on maintaining the economic viability of the city centre, minimised impact on the business district by spreading the morning peak on public transport. A messaging campaign targeted single occupant car journeys to reduce peak demand. TDM was needed for years rather than weeks, showing that it can produce sustained behaviour change.

With each programme, the TDM process has been honed and the resulting travel behaviour change has been greater and sustained for longer.

TDM reimagined for May 2020 and beyond

Most countries are likely to pursue a carefully phased return to work. Some workers will continue to work from home, and people will be encouraged to cycle and walk where possible. People will be encouraged to avoid using public transport during traditional peak hours if they can. Everyone will have to think about planning journeys in advance.

In TDM the four Rs are used in the order they are needed. For the London Olympics ‘Remode’ and ‘Reduce’ were predominant, as people were encouraged to walk and cycle instead of using the Underground – and to travel less. For the Gold Coast Games, ‘Reduce’ was the dominant message as modelling suggested roads would be 80% over capacity. For Glasgow people were asked to ‘Remode’ from car to bus and train, as well as to walk and cycle. In the heart of the Sydney business district ‘Retime’ helped bring people into the city before the traditional peak, spreading rush hour across the morning.

Currently, government and city guidance varies, but UK national guidance has so far centred on the need to ‘Remode’ and ‘Reduce’ – encouraging active travel and asking those who can still work from home to do so.

For the advice to work it is crucial to get the right information, at the right time, in the right way to the right people in a highly co-ordinated and systematic way.


Information – Travellers must be able to make well-informed decisions. The EAST framework, developed by the UK government’s behavioural insights team, offers useful guiding principles: information should be:

  • Easy to understand
  • Attract attention
  • Socially engaging
  • Timely

People need to know which public transport services are running and the best times to travel – when is busy, where and for how long – to enable advance planning. They need information about enhanced cycle and walking routes, alterations to the road network and support for first time bike riders, to encourage more active travel. All in a highly accessible format.

Timing – For effective influence, people need information before they make their journey, during it, and after they’ve completed it.

Channel – One of the greatest learnings from past TDM programmes has been understanding which communication channels work best. This needs careful consideration in the context of COVID-19, as the scale (geography, transport modes, number of stakeholders and diversity of audiences), multiplicity of messages and diversity of media are greater than even the biggest sporting events. Employers will be a cornerstone of any COVID-19 TDM programme, giving accredited, high-quality information to employees through trusted company-owned channels and holding the key as to whether staff can continue to work remotely, start earlier/later or provide cycle parking and facilities for active travellers.

Audience – Who needs to be targeted and with what information? Messaging and communication channels should be tailored to different audiences: people able to continue working from home; people resuming work who could walk or cycle; public transport users who need to know which services should be used and when.

For those whose journey to work will be affected by reduced public transport capacity, distance and ability are critical to behavioural change towards walking and cycling. Targeting the right people and persuading them to opt for active travel is critical. Categorise your transport users and give the right people the right advice.

The challenge ahead

Mobilising TDM fast and at scale will require enormous cross-sector working and quick decisions on messaging and channels. For success, governments will need good co-ordination and consistent messaging. And, fundamentally, they need data. Data is the basis for information that travellers can use to plan their journeys.

Employers whose staff have been working from home must be encouraged to continue. Local authorities will need to quickly expand their active travel strategies, supporting them with road space reallocation – and publicise these so that people take them into consideration when deciding how to travel. Strategies for communication, marketing and stakeholder engagement must be developed.

It is a herculean task. But experience of delivering TDM for major sports events and cities globally shows us that it is possible.

Rose McArthur

Technical lead, integrated transport

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