Behaviour and future transport use in crisis-hit cities

At this time when city councils, infrastructure operators and investors are likely to be re-assessing plans for future transport, due to the way Covid-19 has created changes to how people work and travel, Future Cities Forum spoke to Immense - the firm providing a simulation platform for future mobility systems.

Solutions Director, Dave Williams at the Milton Keynes-based company described the current approach:

'Immense is involved in emerging transport technologies and these projects, using simulations modelling, include how to deploy and manage an autonomous ride sharing service within parts of the UK. While we have traditionally looked at passenger fleet models and management we are now looking at how we apply our technology platform to help national logistics and key worker transport. As engineers by training we are naturally drawn to looking at solving problems which could help society cope and function better in a crisis'.

'Distance, volume, trip lengths, mode - things that are fundamental to how we model transport systems are not the same as they were a few weeks ago. The future is complex and uncertain. Any model that claims to have 'the answer' is almost certainly wrong - but we can use our models to ask 'what if?' and explore what these different outlooks could mean for us.'

' The current C-Virus lock down is affecting how often we make trips and how far we travel. What we don't understand is how this will propagate if we go back to a normal system of living and working, How many of these new behaviours will remain? People realise that a lot of jobs can in fact be done from home and whereas employers might previously have insisted that people come to the office, now they don't. Commutes constitute an enormous proportion of traffic on the transport networks, so perhaps we need to revisit the economic cases for major infrastructure projects and redistribute these investments.

'We are also using distribution networks differently during the crisis. They are under terrific strain but holding up well to deliver goods and services like Personal Protective Equipment. We don't have a problem nationwide but we do in certain areas, and you can't see this from the news headlines.

Dave commented on how a crisis, such as the C-Virus, makes people think closely about preparedness of systems and infrastructure but also about the risk and return equation.

'To give you an analogy, when we had lots of airports closing in the heavy snowfall in January 2019, many asked why we were not prepared. Norway for instance is always prepared for these events but they are more common in Scandinavia. In the past it has not been worthwhile investing to cope with very rare situations, This feels different because health is at stake, but we have not had the infrastructure in place. Do we prepare and build for this sort of situation? It's a societal question as to how and whether we prepare for extremely unusual events.

'There are two ways of using transport and future mobility modelling. The first is to believe that a model can give you an answer, which is the wrong way! The second way is that we (the modelling and data industry) are providing tools to help people make decisions. These models do not tell you what to do. Rather the key is the ability to explore different scenarios while at the root of all these are observations of behaviour and these are not perfect. Nobody records all decisions points during my personal journeys for example, so there are simplifications in the models that are presented. What that means is that there will be errors, but you take this into account. We want people to consider different scenarios and this is the case, for instance with science modelling from Imperial College London on the Covid-19 virus.

'The Corona crisis has forced us to ask questions about public transport use, and this has been difficult for operators. For example, during the earlier years of its existence TfL was funded by government subsidy but it has been moving towards a revenue neutral model based partly on fare income, partly on export of technology and consultancy and partly from redevelopment of land above stations. TfL does not have bottomless pits of money. Do we continue to provide a public transport system in London - important as we have lots of key workers - but looking to the future how do we enact social distancing as you can't maintain this distance on the tube? Do we look to more on-demand bus and taxi services and shifting people to cycling and walking? In the future with just one car ride a week to the supermarket do we need public transport with a lot more work taking place locally, or do we need more car shares? For a long time local authorities propped up public transport buses in the country as a societal need.'

Transport for London's Head of City Planning, Alex Williams, spoke at Future Cities Forum's March planning event in 2019 about the mobility challenges facing the capital through population growth. He said:

'The big challenge is how will London manage the growth from 27 million trips per day – across buses, trains and tube lines - in the capital now to 33 million per day in 25 years’ time? How do we want these trips to be achieved? The Mayor is clear that he wants these to be mostly by sustainable modes, like walking and cycling.

‘Whereas it used to be a factor that once your kids got to secondary schools age you would migrate out, this is happening less and less. Now we are seeing lots of people coming in, especially from Non-EU countries. We will be over 10 million in the 2030's and we will have to improve infrastructure. Increasing capacity on the transport network by 85% over next 25 years is the aim.’

'If we maintain the same level of trip making that we have had in the last few years then we will be creating problems in the future, and we will need public transport. However, if our need for public transport goes down because we are staying at home then the revenue goes down. Either the subsidy level has to go up or it becomes very expensive for travellers to use this mode of transport.'

Future Cities Forum will be returning to the topic in its online discussions and autumn conferences.

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