The pandemic has upended the world of work and commuting patterns in Ireland. So what are the implications for employees, businesses and policymakers? Michele Connolly, KPMG’s EMA Head of Global Infrastructure and Head of Corporate Finance with KPMG in Ireland explores some of the issues.
Public transport played a very significant role in commuting patterns pre-COVID and there was a clear recognition that the volume of car usage on our roads, particularly in the cities, could not continue to increase unabated. Concerns about increasing congestion, long commuting patterns and the increasing focus on the climate action agenda were all factors that played a part in this.
However, that has all been thrown up in the air post-COVID. Public transport usage declined at a very significant rate once the country went into lockdown. Usage is gradually increasing again - but at a very low rate. Arguably that will all settle into a new normal when more employees return to being based predominantly at their place of employment rather than working from home. But will their commuting behaviours stay the same?
The pattern in recent months for those commuting has changed. There has been a noticeable shift away from public transport and into cars and this trend is being seen in many countries across the globe. There has also been an increasing trend towards walking and cycling for those with shorter commutes. Safety concerns play a part here but so too does the fact that the roads are quieter and hence commuting times by car are shorter.
It looks for the moment that we are going to have to learn to live with COVID and socially distanced working. Some workplaces have already had to bring their employees back in and adapt as necessary. Some businesses will choose to substantially work from home indefinitely. However, for many it is most likely going to be a case of balancing working from home and being physically present in the workplace. That requires a considerable degree of logistical planning to facilitate and indeed encouragement of staff to adapt to yet another new norm. It also necessitates making sure staff can get to the workplace on the days they are scheduled to be there.
Yet the changed commuting patterns noted above are not sustainable as more and more people start to commute back to work at least some of the time. Add to that increasing commuting demands that will arise when, hopefully, schools return in September. Simply continuing to increase car usage will rapidly increase congestion levels in our towns and cities, driving up commuting times and making any encouragement of teams to return to a work environment much harder. Not to mention the many other disadvantages of increased car usage.
So, if employers want to encourage staff back into the workplace and everyone driving is not an option, what can we do about it? Walking and cycling will continue to play a part for some but not all. Public transport remains a critical component in the options available. Transport operators and employers are however going to have to work together to promote public transport as a safe means of commuting. Providing information for staff so they can clearly see and understand the measures being taken by public transport providers to ensure it is safe is vital. Similarly, providing information on typical peak times will be important so staff can make their commuting decisions in the knowledge of when the transport systems are likely to be quieter. Noticeably public transport usage, in particular for rail, is increasing at a greater rate at weekends with fewer commuters and more leisure travel.
Many transport providers internationally are guiding passengers toward spare capacity through booking mechanisms and capacity apps. Use of an app in Denmark for example showing which services and carriages have the most space for physical distance helped increase passenger numbers by 6 percent during the first week of lockdown easing.
Capacity on public transport will also be lower for a time to ensure safe travel for all. So, transport providers and employers need to manage the demand with available capacity. Information provision as noted above will help. However, the promotion of staggered opening times is the key means by which this is being managed internationally. Many workplaces have developed the concept of core hours to allow staff to vary their day to start early or finish late. In a post-COVID world however perhaps there is a need for greater encouragement or even mandating of this. Employers, of necessity, must consider more scheduling of their team’s physical presence in offices to manage social distancing anyway.
Meanwhile, some schools and universities in the Netherlands have spread start times over the day, whilst in France, only trips to and from work and school are allowed during peak periods.
We need to learn to live and work with COVID in our lives for the moment. Managing travel patterns in a sustainable manner that supports a balance of working remotely and working in our place of employment is just one more aspect of life that must adapt. Careful management and implementation of appropriate safety measures can allow transport providers to accommodate more passengers. In this way they can avoid delaying economic recovery without contributing to a recurrence of the coronavirus. Collaboration between employers, as generators of transport demand, and those that provide the capacity to meet that demand will be key.
To find out more about how KPMG perspectives and fresh thinking on infrastructure can help your business or organisation thrive contact Michele Connolly via this form.