COVID-19: Public Transport

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Life for buses after lockdown

Life for buses after lockdown

COVID-19, lockdown and social distancing are all having a massive effect on local bus services. Passenger revenue is dropping off the proverbial cliff face, frequencies and routes are being cut back to the bone and staff are being furloughed in an attempt to make ends meet with the support of Government grants. Probably the most challenging times the industry has ever seen.

There has been lots of debate in the press and on-line about what the post Covid-19 bus industry may look like in the UK. The effect that potential job losses, more people opting to work from home and while other turn to walking and cycling, having seen the health benefits of their daily hourly lockdown health regimes, could have a massive effect on our industry.

To try and find some answers to these big questions and understand the possible medium and long-term effects of Covid-19 on the industry, the Social and Market Research team at SYSTRA have been busy surveying 1,500 people about possible changes to their travel habits Covid-19 may bring about.

“Top-line” results include:

  • 20% of bus commuters feel that they will use public transport less after lockdown
  • 57% of bus commuters will reduce their use of public transport due to fear of illness
  • 27% of bus commuters have found other ways of making their public transport journeys

Falling Passenger Number

20% of bus commuters questioned said that they believe the numbers of public transport journeys they make will reduce post lockdown, a highly significant figure even in an industry that is familiar with managing decline.

Bus networks will require regular health checks ensuring that resources are as highly utilised as possible. Planners will need to give even more consideration to demographics, journey patterns and bus route catchment areas as well as scheduling and driver efficiencies. Tools such as ITSIM which allows routes to be overlaid onto data sets and multiple scenarios for route and frequency changes to be easily explored, will become invaluable as will be the requirement for excellent service delivery, ensuring, that operators continue to provide safe and punctual services that our customers can depend on.

Fear of Illness

Continued concerns over health issues may have potential benefits as well as down sides for our industry. One of the ways people have been protecting themselves against coronavirus during the pandemic is through the increased use of contactless payment over cash. As highlighted in 2016 by First - and illustrated in the excellent video - cashless payments can dramatically improve boarding times. The time saved as customers board can be reallocated to running time improving service delivery and reliability – a key to passenger growth and the number one priority of our customers. As an industry we need to make sure that customers can “tap and go” with confidence and in the knowledge that they will automatically be sold the best value ticket available based on their usage.

During a phased return to normality, capacity on buses may be reduced, with people not being allowed to sit next to each other – one person, two seats. This could generate the “perfect storm” of a reduced customer numbers requiring more buses to travel on – less revenue more operating cost. The big question is “will this requirement for more space per customer continue into the long term?” Certainly, past focus groups looking at bus interior design have shown people like the idea of their own space; coronavirus may turn this “like” into more of a “need”.

One way to overcome the potential fear of travelling on public transport and buses is through effective communication with customers and targeted marketing messages. How long before we see Stagecoach or Arriva branded facemasks being handed out to passengers in an attempt to reassure? Will fumigation become part of a buses daily clean regime, something that a number of coach operators have already started doing and which is being publicised on platforms such as LinkedIn. We will need to reassure people that it’s safe to travel by bus.

New Ways to Get About

Nearly thirty percent of bus commuters have found new ways of making public transport journeys that they anticipate continuing once the pandemic has come to an end. One hope in this area is that everyone, not just bus users, start to consider what really is the best way to make a journey. Our newfound connection with nature, the positive and publicised effect lockdown seems to be having on the environment, combined with our daily runs, walks and cycle rides may mean that more people give more thought into how they get around. Rather than automatically jumping into the car at every opportunity we may realise it could be better to walk to the local shops, that a journey into a busy town centre could be more easily made by bus while a trip into London is far more enjoyable by train. If a result of coronavirus was to see a 1 or 2 percent shift from car to bus and other forms of sustainable transport, the effect on the industry and the environment would be very positive indeed.

Just like coronavirus, our survey has generated more questions than answers, but one thing is certain: we need to be preparing right now for life after lockdown.

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