Smart Mobility: Clear blue skies? Journeys after lockdown

What should the transport industry, policy makers and citizens be thinking about when it comes to post lockdown travel?    

The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted many long-standing assumptions about how people make journeys in cities. Now as decision makers look to get their societies and businesses back to work, and individuals consider their travel options, they all face some tough choices. How to strike the right balance between health, environmental and economic priorities?

A massive, unplanned experiment

The COVID-19 pandemic has had extraordinary consequences around the world. One of the most dramatic and visible of these has been the sight of clear blue skies above some of the world’s most polluted cities.

Virtually overnight, the pandemic lockdown and travel restrictions took millions of cars, scooters, tuk-tuks, buses, vans and lorries off the road. When restricted to their local neighbourhoods, the main way for people in cities to move about is now on foot or by bicycle. This reduction in traffic has led to a remarkable reduction in pollutants in major cities: In London, for example, emissions fell by between 51% - 84%  in the period from mid-March into April 2020. Cities in lockdown all round the world will have registered similar effects.

Positive as this sounds, however, billions of people around the world make most of their journeys to commute to work and earn a living. Lockdown may enable clear blue skies and easier breathing, but it also puts whole economies into hugely costly intensive care.

In short, lockdown has turned out to be a massive, unplanned experiment in the complex tradeoff between journeys and jobs vs. congestion and wellbeing.

A tough tradeoff: understanding externalities

This tradeoff is not new to urban planners, economists, environmentalists, healthcare professionals and other specialists: They have engaged for years in technical debate about the true costs, benefits and ‘externalities’ of making billions of journeys in big, crowded cities. Externalities can be positive (e.g., improved access to work for the disadvantaged) or negative (e.g., people with respiratory conditions like asthma having worse health because of pollution).

It is clear that today the price paid to make a journey - whether by car, motorbike or bus - does not capture the full costs of that journey. It may include most of the direct or attributable costs, such as fuel, the bus driver’s salary, buying / maintaining the vehicle, and subsidy costs. But the price does not capture indirect costs such as particulate emissions, the carbon emissions that accumulate in the atmosphere with long-term climate implications, or the negative health effects of taking less exercise. Equally, we do not have a robust way of putting a value on the positive externalities when people make the same journey by bicycle instead.

What has changed? In the past few weeks these extra costs and benefits have suddenly become visible to the general public. They have noticed the difference... and so have politicians.

For example, in the UK, transport ministers and city leaders have rapidly responded by investing in changes to road layouts (wider pavements, more cycle lanes, closing some streets to vehicles): This is the shape of things to come. 

The £250 million ‘emergency active travel fund’ announced for England in May 2020 is an important move in this direction. But it represents just over 2.5% of the Department for Transport’s 2019 £10.2 billion roads budget (source: Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2019, Table 5.2). The Government has also set out long-term multi-year plans for a £5 billion shift towards cycling and zero-emission buses. But those plans were announced in February 2020, pre-COVID 19. It remains to be seen whether that plan and budget will remain intact with the economy now facing the headwinds of serious recession caused by the pandemic.

Journeys after lockdown: how to move forward

With a better understanding of the true costs and benefits of passenger journeys, the challenge is to optimise how much people travel and the modes they use. How best to revive the economy, getting people back to work, while retaining and enjoying the other economic, environmental and health benefits of less congestion, less pollution and more exercise?

We use PwC’s Smart Mobility framework to outline three approaches to this tough question:

First, we should recognise the policy implications of this shift in the public mood. Few citizens are likely to wish actively to go back to yellow skies and billowing clouds of particulates. Transport strategies for the 2020s and beyond need to be linked to wellbeing and resilience in new ways. This needs to be policy-led. There are big, structural implications for regulation and expenditure. These implications need to be thought-through in a joined-up way.

Second, we should re-examine the calculations that underpin public and private mobility investment decisions. For many years ‘increasing capacity’ and ‘achieving faster journey times’ have been two of the key determinants of cost-benefit analyses for investments in mobility. Many of the externalities mentioned earlier were seen as too difficult to quantify in a robust way. Now social distancing means that capacity must often be reduced - by design. Likewise travel on foot or by bicycle is slower, not faster. The clear implication is we need a smarter way to appraise such mobility investments. One which revisits long-standing assumptions and starts to capture the critical externalities. This is complex but essential to making the right tradeoffs.

Third, we should acknowledge this is not just a challenge for politicians and policy leads. As individuals and families we can all do more. We can literally ‘vote with our feet’. We can make positive choices to use healthier, less polluting modes of travel. Here technology and information can be our friend. Here’s a hypothesis and a hunch. Imagine people getting on a bus to go to work. On their phones they can see the fully-costed difference between the same journey made on a diesel-powered bus compared to a zero-emissions bus. This would help make the big choices visible. It could help millions of people change their behaviours positively... and still get to work.

Contact us

David van Oss

David van Oss

PwC | Partner, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7715 211150

Grant Klein

Grant Klein

Partner, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)77 3014 6631

Charles Johnson-Ferguson

Charles Johnson-Ferguson

Transport and Logistics Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0) 7841 561 340

Akshara Kothari Chandhok

Director, Strategy&, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7900 163433

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