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COVID-19: the questions ahead for future travel and transport

Charlene Rohr, Senior Research Leader at RAND Europe, reflects on the research organisation’s ‘future scenarios’ for transport patterns and suggests how COVID-19 could have everlasting impacts.

COVID-19: the questions ahead for future travel and transport

Many people are starting to think about the effect of the COVID-19 virus – or more precisely the social-distancing response to the pandemic – on future travel patterns. Will people continue to work from home and avoid commuting? Will they rush back to their offices for those much-missed interactions with colleagues? Will new ways to connect for video conferencing replace face-to-face business meetings on a more permanent basis, perhaps resulting in less rail or air travel? Will people switch to more individual modes of travel, like bikes or cars, shunning crowded public transport services? Or indeed, could these be redesigned to preserve personal space? Will future holidays be taken more locally, in places that people think are safer? Ultimately, is it possible that people will choose to move out of large cities to live in smaller towns and villages – or vice versa?

Will people switch to more individual modes of travel, like bikes or cars, shunning crowded public transport services?

Answers to such questions are important, because if people travel less or travel differently after COVID-19, less investment could be needed for future transport infrastructure. Some argue that this means that the UK government should think again about its recently announced plans to spend £27 billion to curb road congestion and £100 billion on HS2, a public-sector initiative to connect the UK through faster train transport. Additionally, how much people travel, and the investments governments make, will have a substantial impact on carbon emissions and the environment.

While it is too soon to find out the answers to these questions, there is a tool to help guide policymakers’ thinking during these turbulent times. Future scenarios, a method for visualising different possible futures, can help inform decisions in deeply uncertain situations. In 2016, RAND Europe developed a set of future scenarios for Innovate UK, focusing on how technology may influence future transport patterns. In that work we envisaged three very different transport futures:

  • Driving Ahead: Where economic growth and road travel continue to grow at high rates
  • Live Local: Where there is more digital substitution for travel and hence lower levels of travel
  • Digital Divide: Where high income inequality makes advanced technologies financially out of reach for many.

The point of developing scenarios is not to predict how the future will unfold, but to use them to think about policies and interventions that are important for people’s quality of life regardless of how the future proceeds.

The need for and use of information and communication technologies has been amplified because of COVID-19, perhaps pushing society towards a Live Local future.

One conclusion from our scenarios work is that having access to high quality information and communication technologies, like good broadband services, is crucial, regardless of how the future unfolds. In the Live Local scenario, such services are necessary to connect individuals and businesses and services, facilitating activities such as working and doing business from home, organising delivery of food and groceries and appointments with doctors, providing education of children and communication between friends and families. The need for and use of information and communication technologies has been amplified because of COVID-19, perhaps pushing society towards a Live Local future.

However, the pandemic has also accentuated the problems identified in Digital Divide. It is becoming more evident that these services are not just nice-to-have, but they are essential across cities and rural areas – and for all in society.

These trends point to the increasing need for government to support the roll out of next-generation information and communication services and to ensure that these services are available to all. Unequal access to information and communication technologies may magnify inequalities within society. Those who do not have access to these technologies may not be able to access online services, like grocery deliveries or education for children.

Decisions taken in the short term need to be robust across a range of possible futures.

This is a problem not only now, but also more long-term if society moves towards the use of more online services in future. It is therefore important that governments investigate and address inequalities in access.

On the other hand, it may be that at the end of the COVID-19 crisis, people may desire more face-to-face interaction in work, business activities and social engagements, leading to increases in travel more akin with our Driving Ahead scenario. However, even then, it may be that travel patterns will change.

For now, such changes are only a matter of conjecture. However, no matter how the public ends up working, taking holidays, accessing services and what role transport and other infrastructure has in these activities, decisions taken in the short term need to be robust across a range of possible futures, however unthinkable they may be.

Biography 

Charlene Rohr is a Senior Research Leader at RAND Europe, a not-for-profit research organisation that helps to improve policy and decision making through research and analysis, and Co-Director of RAND Europe’s Centre for Futures and Foresight Studies.

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