How can we predict future transport patterns when the past has been so disruptive?
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
As the UK approaches the point of lifting Covid-19 restrictions, transport planners are pondering how the pandemic will affect the evolution of travel. If recent trends are anything to go by, making accurate predictions will prove challenging, says Mark Hawkins, Head of Sales & Marketing at Citi Logik.
Road traffic is now above pre-pandemic levels, according to an analysis by Transport Technology Forum reported in The Times. This is due to the dual effects of a reluctance to use public transport out of social distancing concerns and a big rise in internet shopping, which has increased the proportion of vans and trucks on the streets relative to other vehicles.
Traffic trends as the pandemic eases
In the first week of June, the number of vans on British roads was at 130 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, the highest since March last year. By contrast, trains were at 51 per cent capacity, while buses were at 63 per cent of usual occupancy, Department of Transport figures show.
Interestingly, traffic levels are more than three quarters higher than during the first lockdown, according to the DoT, suggesting that the Government’s “stay at home” message may not be hitting home.
This rise in road traffic is prompting concerns about air quality when restrictions are eased, and many local authorities either have or plan to implement low emissions zones in city centres. A new Clean Air Zone has been introduced in Birmingham that is set to lead to charges for one in four cars. However, critics have questioned whether the scheme is necessary on environmental grounds in a dispute over pollution data.
“People still don’t trust public transport,” Mark said. “They are getting into cars rather than using public transport. Rebuilding that trust will take time, and that makes planning difficult.”
Shifting rush hours
Another trend that Citi Logik data is picking up is a shift in the timing of the morning and evening rush hours. “The rail rush hour seems to have moved. Instead of being 7am-8am or 8am-9am in the morning, it now begins at around 10am.”
Ironically, the rush hour now consists of people seeking to avoid peak commuting times. “Other people are thinking they don’t want to be on the train when it is at its busiest. Everyone is going in later, but they don’t realise that others are doing the same, and therefore they have now instigated a new rush hour.”
“The rail rush hour seems to have moved. Instead of being 7am-8am or 8am-9am in the morning, it now begins at around 10am.”
The homebound rush hour has also moved earlier, to 3pm. “There are a combination of reasons for this,” Mark said. “Employers are allowing people to be more flexible because of Covid restrictions on the number of people you can have in the office at the same time. Instead of finishing up the day’s tasks in the office, employees are going home first and then logging on later. People also want to buy off-peak tickets because they’re cheaper.”
The future for transport planning
Citi Logik does not anticipate a return to normal anytime soon. “Life will change from March 2019 when we used to shake hands and use public transport without any concern for our health,” Mark said. “Many people won’t want to live like that anymore. Their mode of transport and the times they choose to travel will change, at least for a period of time. They may go back to the old ways eventually, but I expect that will take three to four years.”
Changes in commuter behaviour have triggered changes in how transport planners approach their work.
“People are looking to delay updating their models,” Mark said. “They don’t want to use data from 2019 because they are waiting to see what the new normal is going to look like.”
Citi Logik anticipates a surge in demand for mobile network data-derived transport data from October 2021, by which time commuting patterns are expected to return to normal, or at least to progress to a new normal.
However, waiting for a return to normality is not without risks, Mark pointed out. “The risk is that planners are using an outdated model. They are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t update their old models as they are relying on data that was probably collected four to five years ago, and the world is very different now. Adding updated data now, even short term, gives you a chance of at least being more accurate than using out of date data.”
He added: “Relying on existing data to make decisions about roadworks, highway planning, traffic flows and even cycle lanes will prove to be costly and statistically unreliable. Understanding the dynamics of how a city lives and moves in the new world is a whole new challenge.”
“Relying on existing data to make decisions about roadworks, highway planning, traffic flows and even cycle lanes will prove to be costly and statistically unreliable. Understanding the dynamics of how a city lives and moves in the new world is a whole new challenge.”
Robust data can give transport planners and local authorities the evidence they need to win the support of residents and other stakeholders. “The awareness of what’s going on right now and what the issues are - relating to how consistently you can travel from A to B – is critical to getting buy-in. With the right data, councils can easily explain and prove to their residents why they are making certain decisions or changes around road usage.”
For further information on how mobile network data can help with city planning please visit www.citilogik.com.