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How do we travel to work safely in a social distancing world?
More flexibility to working patterns, as well as more socially distanced forms of transport, walking and cycling, will need to be taken up.
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Public transport in an age of social distancing

New levels of workplace flexibility, as well as more walking and cycling, will be required if public transport is to meet the requirements of social distancing in big cities.

There are those who will tell you that Londoners are so uptight and unfriendly, they have effectively been social distancing for years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone who thinks that has not been on the Victoria Line in the morning peak. In that circumstance, the only way to get to your place of work is to endure a greater level of familiarity with complete strangers than most of us are entirely comfortable with.

So, how does that operate if we are supposed to socially distance? How can we remain the recommended distance apart from everyone else and still get to work in a reasonable amount of time? During the lockdown, the transport system has coped, with reduced services but even lower demand, as most people have been required to work from home. But as the country and the economy starts to come back to life, how can we safely get to work?

More capacity, more staff

Initial testing alongside Transport for London suggests that if social distancing is to continue, public transport capacity could fall to less than 20% of its pre-shutdown level.

While running more trains and buses may be necessary as part of the response, clearly when lockdown is eased and the economy starts coming back to life, that will not be sufficient. There are only so many drivers and only so many buses that can be run. Similarly, capacity for more trains is limited by the numbers of tracks and platforms, so the ability to overcome such a precipitous drop in capacity is limited.

Transport operators will need to creatively adapt to these new circumstances, increasing capacity while maintaining public safety and following government guidelines such as social distancing and the use of face coverings.

Our experience of working on the NHS Nightingale Hospital, London – where our role was to ensure that NHS staff and contractors could get safely to and from the hospital – has given us some insight into this issue. We found that social distancing could only be achieved if overseen by additional staff who limit passenger access to each service to a level consistent with social distancing. Put simply, passengers will need to be counted on and off. This will likely need to happen outside of stations themselves. There is precedent for this type of operation at Victoria and London Bridge Stations whenever the underground station becomes overcrowded. Passengers are held outside the station and only granted access in small numbers overseen by staff at the entrances.

This poses two additional problems: firstly, this management will be costly, as it will require significantly more staff at each station (and potentially each bus stop), and secondly that those waiting to be granted access will also need sufficient space to socially distance. This space is unlikely to be available everywhere.

Amended working patterns

Another approach will be to work from home more. While that might seem like an unappealing proposition for many of us who have been stuck at home in recent weeks and months, the lockdown has shown us all that our physical presence is probably required a lot less than before. In transport capacity terms, this simply means that many fewer people will need to travel to and from work, which will help address the reduced functional capacity of the public transport network and free up space for those who need to travel. However, it will create organisational and cultural challenges for many businesses.

Zooming in slightly, those who do need to travel to work could be encouraged do so outside of the peak times. Where we all used to have to be at work by nine and would leave at five, now office-workers typically regularly start anywhere between eight and ten am. There would appear to be little reason why this type of peak-spreading cannot be extended further. Managers will need to be willing to embrace such flexibility, if they have not already done so.

More walking and cycling

The other card available to cities is to maximise those forms of transport that allow ongoing social distancing; that is, walking and cycling. These come with their own challenges. Many footways are not much more than 2m wide (the current recommended distance that people should maintain according to Public Health England), so two-way walking while social distancing will be challenging with existing provision. Also, cycle lanes are similarly width constrained. The good news is that virus transmission is less likely to happen in well-ventilated spaces (like the great outdoors) where you are not constantly sharing air. So if you do need to pass another cyclist at a closer-than-recommended distance, there is less risk than if you were at the same distance sitting in an enclosed space.

It’s possible that the reduction in travel that will follow from greater homeworking could also mean a reduction in demand for road space. This could be turned over to walking and cycling following the leads set by other cities around the world. Put simply, if we cannot get enough people to and from work by public transport and we don’t want our cities to be choked with cars, then we need to create enough space for significantly more walking and cycling. Moreover, if we are going to take such a step, we should do it in a way which will encourage those previous hesitant to do so. If undertaken cannily, this transformation could lay the groundwork for a more permanent network of active travel provision. This is the basis of some work we are undertaking with our public health specialists in our infrastructure epidemiology team at Mott MacDonald, to help transport providers think through these challenges.

Nobody yet knows what kind of world will emerge from the current crisis. In transport terms, it is likely to be a very different one, at least in the medium term. It seems to me that if the world has to be different, it should be different in the way we want it to be. In the short term, the ongoing need for social distancing while the UK wakes up means that all of the above ideas (and more) will be required.

For more information on the future of transport, click here

Stuart Croucher

Technical principal, urban design

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