Fork in the road ahead: Can COVID-19’s impact on transport provide lessons for tackling climate change?

  • COVID-19

Iain Docherty, Dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies and Professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Stirling and Greg Marsden, Professor of Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds 

In this piece Iain Docherty and Greg Marsden focus on the impact that COVID 19 has had on transport in the UK and investigate what we might learn from that, both in terms of the immediate challenge of emerging from the pandemic and the longer term issues of tackling climate change.

As for many aspects of everyday life, how, where and when we travel around has been profoundly impacted by COVID19. 18 months into the pandemic, transport remains one of the major sectors of the economy facing the highest levels of uncertainty about what its medium to longer term recovery trajectory might look like. This uncertainty isn’t just about how quickly the overall demand for travel will recover to pre-pandemic levels, or indeed whether we might commute less and travel for leisure more in future: it reaches into the very heart of the structures and processes underpinning how the transport system operates, who pays for it, and how well it supports other aspects of the economy and society, and the environment.

Work examining how the transport sector had prepared for a global pandemic and how it has reacted since its onset reveals a truly remarkable story demonstrating just how quickly longstanding axioms can be upended and forward plans rendered ineffective.[1] Perhaps the single most studied aspect of the sector in the UK over the last 40 years had been how the processes of privatisation and deregulation have changed the nature of the network and the services that run on it.[2] Yet our research has shown that within days of the introduction of formal lockdown on 23 March 2020, passenger numbers on bus and rail had collapsed to the extent that no public transport service anywhere in the UK was commercially viable. This meant that the UK Government and devolved administrations were obliged to spend billions keeping the network functioning precisely because no non-state operator could bear such risks.

The limits to the founding principles of privatisation – especially the transfer of financial risk away from the state – were therefore laid bare. But this was only one of the axioms to be ruthlessly exposed by the pandemic. Even more remarkably, our interviews with senior decision makers have demonstrated that despite its scale, financial power, highly developed professional standards, and networks and accreditations, the business processes that governed service operations across the transport sector were proven to be of extremely limited use in responding to the immediate challenges of COVID19. Perhaps most remarkably of all, and despite the widespread use of risk registers as a key tool of planning and strategy, we could not find any example of an organisation that had considered the possibility that the demand for travel could collapse in pandemic conditions. In hindsight, planning for critical staff shortages without recognition that general transmission of the same novel disease might stop people from travelling in the first place appears rather quaint to say the least. When you consider that a pandemic had been the number one risk on the UK Government’s own National Risk Register for several years, it seems incredible.

As we enter autumn 2021, the outlook for the sector remains more uncertain than anyone currently working in it has ever experienced. Public transport use – which fell by up to 95% across the rail network in the early stages of the first lockdown[3] – continues to recover slowly but highly unevenly. After a year and a half of working from home and saving substantial sums of money on season tickets, many people are reluctant to return to commuting more than is strictly necessary. The media debate about the extent to which commuting demand does rebound has been dominated to date by the voices of city centre property interests and hospitality businesses. But the entire financial structure of the rail industry too has been built around the idea of a five day per week morning peak and redistributing the premium fares revenue from (especially) London commuters travelling at peak times, and so if behaviour has changed permanently then the implications for cost base of the industry and who pays for it are profound.

At local level, there is more positivity about the resilience of neighbourhood high streets, some of which have even prospered as stay at home workers spend locally rather than in city centres. But here too our survey work with households across Great Britain has shown there are potential problems emerging: car use has continued to recover, with peak demand in many places now occurring in the middle of the day as people take the opportunity to drive to the supermarket or pick the kids up from school, trips previously impossible when they were miles away sat behind an office desk. Despite all the early optimism about the potential for increased cycling in particular, there is no guarantee that pandemic-induced changes will be more sustainable and offer a route to lower carbon emissions from transport. Important and politically challenging interventions like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and reallocating road space away from cars to public transport, walking and cycling remain necessary to drive change but remain difficult to deliver, with some areas actively removing schemes put in place earlier in the pandemic.

So as it seeks to find a way out of the shock of the COVID19 pandemic, the transport sector is not without its policy challenges to face. There remains very little insight into crucial variables such as what future travel demand profiles will look like and whether attitudes to crowding on buses and trains have changed permanently. Professionals working in the sector are in many cases being asked to continue development work on major infrastructure projects measured in the hundreds of millions of pounds despite the modelling assumptions that underpin their ‘business cases’ – a difficult and contested term at the best of times – having been more or less demolished by the behaviour changes already seen since the onset of the pandemic. As one senior policy maker we spoke to put it, “We’re in the dark at the moment… none of our models mean anything”.

Reflecting on how the pandemic has played out in the transport sector thus far leads us towards two crucial sets of questions about its future. The first concerns the extent to which changed travel behaviours have become embedded in everyday life, and the impacts of these on the operations and viability of different kinds of transport services. It is far from clear whether government will continue to bear the substantially increased costs of public transport services over the medium term, and how any desire to reduce revenue support can be done in such a way that it matches new demand profiles, such as a less intense peak, is as yet far from certain. Early signs of shifts in car driving from the traditional peaks to other times of the day are also exposing the lack of knowledge and tools we have available to help us understand what might happen to non-commuting behaviours, which according to the National Travel Survey made up 80% of all miles travelled before the pandemic.[4]

But perhaps most concerning of all is what the wider systemic under-preparedness and limited scope of policy reaction to COVID19 means for the other ongoing crisis, that of the climate emergency. We are now only 9 years away from the next key milestone targets for decarbonisation contained in climate change legislation, a timescale that necessitates fast and substantive intervention to change the profile of a sector that has thus far proven amongst the most difficult to decarbonise. If the lesson of COVID19 in transport turns out to be that the sector was unable to face up to a major endogenous shock and introduce focused policy changes proactively, then the prospects for doing so to tackle the even greater systemic challenge of decarbonisation appear worryingly uncertain.

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[1] Marsden. G. and Docherty, I. (2021) “Mega-disruptions and policy change: Lessons from the mobility sector in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK”, Transport Policy, 110, 86-97.
[2] See, for example, Preston, J. (2005) The deregulation and privatisation of public transport in Britain: twenty years on, Transport Research Foundation (Great Britain), Wokingham.
[3] See
[4] See

Photo Credit: Kutan Ural on Unsplash

About the authors

Iain Docherty FAcSS is Dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies and Professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Stirling. Greg Marsden is Professor of Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds. Their research project (with Jillian Anable and Llinos Brown) on the implications of COVID19 for transport and mobility is documented at