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The Future of Travel Demand

As professional services businesses adjust to life working from home, our Transport Planning Director, Paul Lulham reflects on how the current circumstances are likely to change our travel and growth patterns in the future.

Having adjusted, somewhat uneasily, to the new ‘normal’ following two weeks confined to the home office, my thoughts – and those of many in the transport planning profession – have turned to the potential longer-term implications of Covid-19 on travel demand.

It seems inevitable that this episode will accelerate trends towards flexible and home-working amongst those in office jobs who have found that the technology (be it Skype, Teams or Zoom) is now more reliable and user-friendly than ever – even for luddites like me. I am personally hopeful that it will also reduce the number of face-to-face meetings for which the journey there and back is longer than the event itself!

As the President of the AA, Edmund King, told the BBC last week[1], the implications of this for national infrastructure planning could be significant. If commuter trips – which drive daily travel demand – fall dramatically, do we still need major transport projects like High Speed 2? Or the major upgrades to the motorway and trunk road network announced by the Chancellor in last month’s Budget? Should we instead divert this investment towards accelerating the rollout of superfast broadband to homes the length and breadth of the UK?

Clearly the environmental benefits of this trend could be game changing, particularly if it is repeated throughout the Western world. And at a time when most experts agree we are facing a climate emergency, it is vital that we embrace it.

Yet there will always be a need for travel and face to face meetings, and as the current lockdown reminds us, there remain huge social benefits in physical interaction which should not be underplayed. Greater time at home also means increased deliveries and the demand for freight and logistics infrastructure that comes with that.

To my mind therefore, it is not yet time to scrap all road and rail projects out of hand, particularly in the context of ongoing population growth. But at a local level, I am in agreement with Professor Greg Marsden from the Leeds University’s Transport Studies Unit, who told the BBC that we should take this opportunity to rebuild our public transport networks and invest in electric vehicle infrastructure.

By taking this approach, we can continue to rebalance the transport system in favour of sustainable modes such as rail and buses and building future growth around them – with all the environmental and health benefits that come with that – whilst also building a more efficient and reliable national network for longer-distance passenger and freight movements.

In the meantime, the home office will see us through.

[1]  BBC News

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