Street in Oxford. Photo by Tim Bechervaise on Unsplash

Recovery from the Coronovirus Crisis: Opportunity or threat to low carbon transport policy?

07 May, 2020

Greg Marsden

Reading time: 6 minutes

This blog challenges the simple narrative of opportunity to low carbon transport policy presented by the Coronavirus Crisis by reflecting on other past ‘opportunities’ which have been squandered or, worse still, have been used to bake in higher carbon policies.

The lockdowns and social distancing measures which are in place across much of the globe at the moment have been both hugely socially challenging and revealing. Images of clear skies over Delhi, goats roaming the town centre of Llandudno and streets empty of cars.

The scale of the human impact on the environment is laid bare and the prospect of different future policy pathways to lower carbon, cleaner and healthier lifestyles is tantalising. The number of commentaries on how this is an opportunity to seize is quite overwhelming. This blog challenges the simple narrative of opportunity by reflecting on other past ‘opportunities’ which have been squandered or, worse still, have been used to bake in higher carbon policies. Drawing on recently published research on previous disruptions it underlines the importance of action now if we are to see real path changing benefits from the crisis.

Changing travel patterns as an opportunity

People have stopped travelling as much as they used to because they have been told to and, when they do have to travel, they have been asked to do this in a different way. Many of the activities they would have been taking part in have stopped and so the absence of reasons to travel also play a part in drops of 60% in traffic levels. Will the economy and travel ‘bounce back’? Will people turn away from public transport? Will people carry on cycling more? Will they drive more to insulate themselves against the risks of infection?

What we know is that there is no ‘bounce back’ nor a ‘return to normal’. Once people live through an event this is part of their experience set. They make adaptations to continue to live their daily lives as best they can. The work I have conducted on previous disruptions suggests that during these times, individuals tend to accentuate things they have previously done but perhaps not embedded as a regular means of doing things (e.g. on-line shopping, a skype call to family members, working from home, exercising in the vicinity). It is the shift of many people to doing these activities which creates innovations in how things are done (e.g. increasing on-line delivery capacity, organisations reconfiguring and insisting that all roles in organisations are done from home rather than a few ‘choosers’ and the investments in IT infrastructure changes to make that possible, on-line pubs and google classrooms).

We know from the London Olympics, where an intensive period of around 2 months of travel demand reduction strategies were put in place, that the way in which the organisations respond afterwards matters to how much change is embedded. At an individual level research found that around 6% of people said they would keep at least one of their behavioural changes. However, this was so much lower than the more than 50% of people who made changes over those 2 months. Why? Almost all of the businesses (including Government departments) went back to working as they had before. No consolidation of deliveries and ordering, no walking maps for accessing nearest meetings, no change in working from home protocols. To really embed change requires an understanding of the combined institutional and citizen response. Given that the pathway out of the current crisis is going to require a negotiated and staged release of social distancing measures there will be an extended period where this can be achieved in ways which support businesses and people as well as delivering better carbon, air quality and health outcomes.

There are opportunities too now for mass experimentation on active travel and some really great examples of pop up cycle and walking infrastructure to aid social distancing and change how we view streets are coming to the fore.

Negative outcomes are plausible too

However, I am very cautious of just looking at the ‘opportunity’ here. There are also threats to the climate policy agenda. Immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis, faced with a contracting economy and a reduction in travel demand, Governments around the world reached for infrastructure based fiscal stimulus packages. Those parts of government (national and local) charged with thinking about what next for the economy could equally well focus on a “lets get people travelling again” demand stimulation mantra along the lines we saw pre-Coronavirus, rather than rethinking whether we really needed that approach anyway. Some examples to consider:

  • Funding is already ring-fenced for the Road Investment Strategy and the Government has committed to a massive infrastructure investment plan. It is easier to carry on than to look again at whether we now need to travel more.
  • Town centres will be struggling massively after the restrictions are eased. One response is to lower or scrap parking fees. This was the backdrop to shopping anyway. Of course, it does not address the underlying shift in how we shop and would miss the opportunity to re-purpose town centres.
  • Some places have had a very limited commitment to cycling and walking. If the space needed to support social distancing safely on foot and bike is not made now – with concerns of virus spread and when traffic levels are so low then when will be a good time? This is a critical bell weather for me on the likelihood of future rapid action on climate commitments in transport.
  • Running a public transport system as we used to with capacity limited to 25% for some time to come will inevitably be scrutinised. What about the voices for support from the car industry and the arguments that will come about a more individualised car based system is more resilient and ‘what people want’. This is a red flag risk to our medium term potential to cut carbon even if public transport seems, in the short-run to be more about providing access rather than cutting carbon.

Where next?

Effecting change requires imagination, people to do it, some requires funding, some requires rewriting regulations or changing how things have always been done. Most of it requires saying that we are going to stop doing some things – and that always generates some opposition. None of these are reasons why things couldn’t happen but they do explain why it is not inevitable that they will. Things can also very quickly move on and become old news as other lobbies and framings emerge. The next few weeks are critical to setting us on a different pathway. The CREDS project on accelerating the Decarbonisation of Mobility will be doing its bit to make the arguments nationally and locally on the case for real change. We are also commencing two new projects: one looks at the energy use before, during and after the Coronavirus Crisis and the other, the contribution that reducing energy demand can play in the economic stimulus package post-COVID-19.

Banner photo credit: Tim Bechervaise on Unsplash