Covid-19 has had a dramatic impact on public transport networks around the world. Most have yet to recover and widespread adoption of hybrid working suggests that traditional patterns of travel may never return. But fresh ideas are being launched to lure passengers back to the networks.
C ommuters make for unlikely revolutionaries. But these reluctant travellers, packed in tight and paying for the privilege, are at the sharp end of extraordinary changes that are unpicking public transport systems across many parts of the developed world.
Enforced working from home during the pandemic has left many people, especially knowledge workers and white-collar professionals, determined not to return to the five-day travel grind. Companies whose employees can work effectively from home have had little choice but to fall in line, with many now embracing hybrid working patterns that require only two or three days in the office each week.
This shift – a sudden lurch forward in a trend that was in train well before the pandemic struck – shows up clearly in data on public transport use around the world. Passenger numbers on the New York Subway have fallen to less than 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, roughly in line with the Madrid metro. The London Underground, meanwhile, is at 75 per cent of its pre-Covid figures on weekdays. In the UK, as elsewhere, all forms of public transport are now used less than they were before March 2020, but railway commuters, who generally travel longer distances, are leading the retreat. In the year to March 2022, season tickets accounted for 16.9 per cent of rail journeys – compared with more than 30 per cent for the year to March 2020. In northern California’s Bay Area, home of the tech industry, the decline is even sharper. Weekday journeys on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system have fallen by around 65 per cent from pre-pandemic levels.
Passenger statistics in many places tend to show a stronger rebound in weekend travel and off- peak weekday travel than at peak commuting times. This is also reflected in the figures for car use, which in the UK remain a few points below their pre-pandemic level on weekdays but are now above it at weekends.
Although public transport use is recovering gradually, few believe the numbers will go back to the levels that were common before the pandemic. A briefing paper prepared for the European Parliament’s transport committee earlier this year reported that public transport authorities across the EU expect “a structural 10-15 per cent decrease in usage of urban public transport compared to pre-pandemic levels”.
Passenger numbers on the New York Subway have fallen to less than 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Weekday journeys on California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system have fallen even more sharply
Optimists note a silver lining in the passenger data: GDP has not shrunk in line with transport system use, suggesting that economic output has become less ‘travel intensive’ since the pandemic
Funding is unravelling
The shift in travel patterns is causing major financial headaches for public transport authorities and operators. Their business models are usually based on charging a premium to ‘captive’ commuters who have no choice but to travel at certain times of day. If the commuters disappear, the funding model unravels.
Greg Marsden, professor of transport governance at the Institute for Transport Studies in Leeds, believes that by the time the pandemic struck, the UK’s rail system had become unduly dependent on the higher fares charged to peak-time users to make ends meet. As a result, he points out, the relatively strong rebound in leisure travel, while welcome, has not delivered a material boost to the system.
“We became addicted to that heavy peak,” he argues. “We’d got into quite an unhealthy position, where we were spending a lot of money providing marginal additional capacity in the morning, which we were charging heavily for.”
Outside peak periods, however, operators were struggling to fill those extra carriages. And an addiction to the ‘heavy peak’ led to a further problem: the system was running at or over capacity during those peak periods, so even small problems had huge knock-on effects.
Governments have had little choice but to bail out public transport systems that are struggling with dwindling commuter numbers and a simultaneous surge in running costs, thanks to rampant inflation. Most critical public services cannot be delivered by people working from home, and the coming months are likely to see multiple public transport bailouts similar to the £1.2 billion funding deal agreed with Transport for London in August. Many of these packages will include cuts in services to reduce running costs.
Numerous schemes have been announced to provide heavily subsidised travel, paid for by central governments, to combat the rising cost of living and encourage people back on to public transport. Germany offered its citizens travel passes at a flat €9 per month for local and regional transport between June and August, at a cost of €2.5 billion. Spain has made commuter journeys and some longer rail journeys free from 1 September until the end of the year, on top of an existing 30 per cent discount on all public transport. In the UK, the government has pledged to cap the price of single bus journeys in England at £2, at a cost of £60 million.
Public transport planning has traditionally been based on assumptions that economic growth requires more travel and therefore more transport capacity. But do such notions still apply in a world where hybrid working is much more widespread?
Initiatives such as these highlight the scope that exists to change the way people are charged for public transport. Many bus operators have introduced carnet-style ticketing to encourage occasional users back to their services, and there is a strong case in the UK for changing the balance between peak and off-peak fares on the railways as well. Here, though, the politics are fraught, since any change will inevitably mean raising fares for off-peak travellers in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
In addition, the complex and highly regulated way in which UK rail fares are set – stemming from privatisation in 1993 – makes reform doubly difficult. As a result, much of the debate so far has focused on how to cut costs in the public transport system, rather than how to reform the way users pay for it.
Optimists, however, may note a silver lining in the passenger data: GDP has not shrunk in line with transport system use, suggesting that economic output has become less ‘travel intensive’ since the pandemic.
This raises some important questions. Public transport planning has traditionally been based on assumptions that economic growth requires more travel and therefore more transport capacity. But do such notions still apply in a world where hybrid working is much more widespread? The investment case for public transport schemes is also typically predicated on delivering reduced journey times. But if fewer people are commuting daily and more business meetings take place via video calls rather than in person, how important is it to shave a few minutes from a journey? Should different yardsticks be used instead, such as quality and reliability?
Public transport authorities across the EU expect ‘a structural 10-15 per cent decrease in usage of urban public transport compared to pre-pandemic levels’
On the buses
In many rural areas of Britain, public transport has all but disappeared, with bus services cut back to as little as once a week. Increasing financial pressure since the pandemic has prompted bus operators to examine whether software can be deployed to make these services both economically viable and more attractive to users.
So-called demand-responsive transport (DRT) uses technology similar to that used by ride-hailing apps such as Uber to enable buses to be run more like taxi services, rather than following pre-set routes on a rigid timetable. Travellers book a ride through the bus company’s app or by phone; they are then told where to wait for their pick-up and they can track the bus on the app. The US and Europe are leading the way with this technology, but schemes have also been introduced Australia and New Zealand, and initiatives have been launched in the Middle East and South America too.
New York-based Via provides the software that drives many of these DRT schemes. Europe chief executive Chris Snyder says: “The fixed-route bus in a rural or suburban context is just the wrong tool. If you draw a line through a fairly large area, that’s not a great experience for folks who don’t live very close to that specific line. But if the vehicle is dynamically routed, you can provide a much higher level of service.”
In Sevenoaks, Kent, local bus operator Go Coach has launched go2, a DRT service that replaces traditional buses with smaller vehicles that cost much less to run. Go2 allows locals who previously made do with one bus service per day, or even per week, to travel on demand between 6am and 9.30pm seven days a week. “About a third of the people we carry couldn’t have done the journey they’re doing on a fixed-line bus before Covid,” says Go-Coach managing director Austin Blackburn. The average waiting time is 19 minutes.
Demand-responsive transport uses technology similar to that used by ride-hailing apps such as Uber to enable buses to be run more like taxi services, rather than following pre-set routes on a rigid timetable
Blackburn cautions that launching go2 has not resulted in an increase in passenger numbers and adds that his smaller vehicles cover about 40 per cent more miles per week than they would on fixed routes. But users receive a better service for the same level of subsidy and passenger satisfaction scores are consistently high.
“DRT isn’t the total answer,” he says. “It’s about a mix of fixed-line services and DRT. If you’ve got more than four or five people that want to go in the same direction, within about half an hour or 45 minutes, they should really be on a fixed-line bus. We’ve already accommodated some of that in our fixed-line network, by bringing such buses back where we’ve seen demand.” The big advantage that running DRT services brings, he says, is that “we get far, far better data then we ever do with fixed line... with DRT we know everything about our customers”.
Initiatives such as DRT are unlikely on their own to reverse the decline in bus use since the pandemic, but they nonetheless contain important lessons for transport authorities and operators. The decline in passenger numbers has stripped away the economies of scale that public transport systems rely on and made running them much less efficient. DRT demonstrates that opportunities exist to spend existing budgets differently and deliver better services. The key to success will be a willingness to experiment and find new ways of working – just like those happy former commuters have done n