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Travelling sustainably – how hybrid working impacts the future of how we travel

In a guest article for Summix’s spotlight on the future of work, David Frisby, Director, mode transport planning, explores the long-term trends home-working and Covid have created for communities across the UK.

He explores just how important it is for decision-makers to embrace these trends head on, if we are to deliver a positive impact on congestion, emissions, and most importantly, on the built and natural environments.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on how we all lived our lives, however one of the most noticeable was the impact on transport. We learnt to live (and work!) without being legally allowed to travel outside of the immediate locality of our homes.

The nation demonstrated an enormous capacity to readjust to these restrictions at-speed. Where their jobs allowed, many people were able to reorganise their daily lives to travel less. We rapidly learnt to work from home with an almost immediate worldwide adoption of video conferencing tools such as Teams and Zoom.

It was abundantly clear that the UK was driving a lot less during lockdown. At the time, the government published data which showed road trips using motorised vehicles were at around 35% during April 2020 of their usual level. During the same period, levels of cycling nearly tripled!

These dramatic changes during the pandemic also resulted in associated impacts. These were universally observed and included: less noise, the eradication of congestion, safer streets and an improvement in air quality.

As shown in Summix’s Future of Work report, the lasting impacts of working from home can still be seen nearly three years later. It allowed us all to be more present with our families. Therefore, the reallocation of our commute time could be considered one of the most influential elements impacting weekday travel patterns.

Hybrid working is clearly here to stay. It is no longer a “nice to have”, but more of a basic employee demand. Most employers, where practicable, offer all staff two days a week working from home.

In addition, employees are no longer rigidly tied to a desktop computer located in a traditional office environment, allowing individuals to be better placed and more willing to work flexible hours. We are now working perhaps earlier or later in the day, or even at weekends. This has allowed workers to “fit their employment” into their personal commitments, social lives, and hobbies.

Travelling trends

For those who are able, working from home has played a critical part in reducing traffic levels, with hybrid working resulting in fewer visits to the office. The long-lasting impact on the volume and patterns of workplace/weekday travel means most modes of transport are still below pre-pandemic levels. And more significantly, below the pre-pandemic projected demand levels.

Furthermore, the Department for Transport regularly publishes statistics on domestic transport usage by mode[1]. The most recent headlines show public transport levels are still down by approximately 20% compared to pre-pandemic levels and traffic congestion has returned.

T1: weekday transport usage by mode compared to pre-pandemic levels

  • Rail 83%
  • London Underground 79%
  • Bus 77%
  • London Bus 87%
  • Cycling 99%
  • Motor Traffic 101%

However, since the beginning of last year, weekday usage across all transport modes has steadily increased.

Across the UK, public transport (rail, tube, bus) usage has increased at a slow rate and has generally remained below pre-Covid levels. This, in turn, may result in further reductions in public transport services, due to reduced financial viability.

Cycling, which had a mini-renaissance during the pandemic, has significantly dropped back in line with pre-Covid levels. Demonstrated by new bike sales falling 22% compared to this time last year. This represents the lowest UK sales levels in the last twenty years. This significant decline puts into question the Government’s ability to hit targets for increasing 50% of trips to be made by walking and cycling across the country by 2030[1].

Two steps forward, one step back

The quickest recovery to pre-Covid levels has been shown in motor vehicle usage. Our own company’s research suggest that whilst congestion during traditional peak hours of 08:00-09:00 and 17:00-18:00 remain at around 90% of where they were pre-pandemic, there is strong evidence that we now favour motor vehicles more than before. It should also be highlighted that traffic density is spreading out throughout the day.

This change in motor vehicle density is due to a more flexible start and finish time of our working day outside of the recognised peak hours. However, through the luxury of improved internet connectivity, we have been gifted the opportunity to indulge in e-commerce like never before. Add to this the ability to be at home to receive our packages when they are delivered. The result is that this reduces weekday shopping trips in one sense, as we’re not travelling to go shopping. However, it increases traffic in another sense, with the increase in delivery vehicles.

The pandemic acted as a catalyst that increased the speed of change in the way we shop. E-commerce and “last-mile” distribution are experiencing a huge uplift, driven by increasing customer demands. We are demanding more immediate or same-day deliveries (and return) options in convenience and comparison goods. Additionally, the rise in fast food home (and workplace) delivery is all fuelled by our newfound work-from-home culture.

The impact on the built environment

The challenge is not for the architects, master planners, designers, and transport engineers to capitalise on our newfound love of hybrid working.

Our industry is already awash with advocates. The time is now for UK Government, politicians, policy and decision-makers to engender this unforeseen disruption into clear and implementable legislation. This will result in a positive impact on congestion, emissions, and most importantly, our built and natural environment.

As we continue to accelerate away from the impacts of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, we must not lose sight of our changed working patterns. We must design our towns and cities with more consideration and use our burgeoning work-from-home culture more intelligently. It is imperative we AVOID building more roads.

Public transport needs to be made more attractive again. Significant investment in high-quality walking and cycle infrastructure must be integrated into our towns and cities as soon as possible to ensure that our less frequent trips to the office are untaken as sustainable as possible.

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