Travel Behaviours

The ‘new normal’ is a hot topic. Whilst it’s not yet clear exactly what this will be, it’s clear that our travel behaviours post-Coronavirus will be different to those before it. As a regular commuter I’m already starting to think about how my daily journey to London might change when lockdown is eased or ended.

Those currently venturing out of their homes for essential work or supplies are choosing alternative methods to get around because public transport is currently less available, as well as less favourable in the present environment. But once we can all go back to work and resume social activities, what will be influencing our decisions then?

For those who live in cities, walking, running, cycling or even scooting offer a viable option to totally avoid public transport. For people like myself who travel longer distances, we will be unable to avoid the use of trains, but many of us will still be able to make changes once we reach our terminus station. Instead of jumping straight onto the tube or bus many people may now turn to walking or cycling as an alternative for the ‘last mile’, making it significantly easier to maintain social distancing from fellow commuters.

A travel survey by SYSTRA showed that the number of people using public transport in Britain's cities could be 20% lower than normal after the end of the lockdown. Furthermore, it’s estimated that commuters in London using the bus or tube could fall by as much as 40% from pre-lockdown levels. It is also predicted that maintaining a 2m social distance would reduce the capacity of the London Underground to 15% of normal levels, and buses to 12%. Some commentators are even suggesting an increased reliance on private car use once lock down is eased. There are plenty of statistics out there speculating what may or may not happen but no one really knows for sure. Which is why it’s important, now more than ever, to rethink and re-evaluate the approach we take towards our transport infrastructure.

As a designer, one of the first questions I asked myself was what can I do to encourage and support more walking and cycling as we transition back to normality? Providing adequate infrastructure and personal space to support these activities seems to be at the centre of many conversations. But the second question I had, and which cannot be forgotten or underestimated, is what can I do to sustain this behaviour change over the long term, especially once people start settling back into old routines?

With so much attention being placed on social distancing measures and a possible ‘second wave’ of infection, designers are quite rightly exploring temporary ways to reduce the risk of transmission. However we mustn’t forget our priorities pre-Coronavirus, which may seem like a lifetime away now; namely our commitment towards active transport for wider sustainability, health, social and economic purposes. Without question Coronavirus will continue to provide significant challenges to our public infrastructure, however we need to start thinking about how we can use this as an opportunity to promote and sustain positive societal changes which we’ve been striving to achieve for years now.

If we look at the typical stages of behaviour change, it is clear that we have already started the cycle. Some of us are still contemplating what we might do once lock down eases, whilst others may be preparing for or even already taking action.

New behaviour adoption process

With Coronavirus, people now have a very clear motive to change their travel behaviours and the need for physical distancing makes the case for change unarguable. Councils have been granted temporary powers to close roads or to repurpose public spaces; cities like Milan, New York and London have already announced ambitious plans to reconfigure roads to allocate more space for cyclists and pedestrians. But how do we keep this momentum going and how do we ensure that we sustain the changes we make?

When behaviour changes, the new behaviour does not simply erase the old; it’s very easy to relapse and fall back into old habits, especially once the motivation for the original change dissipates over time. It’s too easy to hop onto a bus because it’s drizzling, or jump into a taxi if you’re running late for an appointment or lumbered with a heavy bag.

As designers we need to apply our creative approach to problem solving. Firstly, we need to create environments that will kick-start and encourage new actions from both a physical and psychological point of view. Secondly, we must continue to iterate by assessing the wider landscape, anticipating how attitudes and behaviours might change over time or context. In today’s dynamic society there is seldom one simple and static answer. Sustained change is rarely based on one decision at a single point in time; people need continued help and support to keep on the right track.

Whilst social distancing for our health and safety is currently the primary driving force for change, Coronavirus should not be central to all decision making going forward. We should not lose focus on the goals we had before the virus. Widening footways is a great start but could be perceived as a token gesture if done in isolation without creating joined-up routes, or if dockless bikes continue to encroach onto any available pavement space. Creating new cycle lanes is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to tackle cycling’s ‘subjective safety’ issue, or during the winter months when rain, wind, snow and darkness make it less appealing as an option.

We need to consider other motivations that influence our behaviours and use these collectively to drive and maintain the changes we make to our travel patterns. Motivations could include reducing pollution, saving money, improving health and well-being, or simply valuing the outdoors and public spaces. We have an opportunity to shift focus onto these other benefits, which have always been there but can now be promoted even more. Over the weekend the UK government has urged us to walk and cycle more with extra funding likely to be announced for English local authorities to help alter road networks to facilitate this. Coronavirus is already acting as a catalyst, but focus should be placed on permanent change; one which allows us to define, rather than predict, the new normal.

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