The last six months have had a dramatic impact on our lives including; who we can see, where we can go; and how and whether we travel. The impact on commuting, especially to the centres of our biggest cities, has been large, and it seems inevitable that, even when social distancing is finally relaxed, the new normal for commuter networks will be very different.
As ever, change brings both new opportunities and challenges.
Some of the biggest challenges will be financial. The government has taken radical steps to ensure that public transport networks have stayed operational. But the current levels of financial support cannot be sustained forever. One thing is certain: public transport commuter networks will have to be returned to financial sustainability, one way or another.
This means adapting to whatever the long-term impact on demand and revenues turns out to be. There will be implications for commuter services across the country and the employment locations that have depended on them. Many difficult choices lie ahead. There will be places that need to be remade and sectors of the economy that will never be the same again.
At the same time, the reduced revenues for transport providers and less competition for space in expensive locations mean savings for households and businesses, which spells opportunity for some. However, there will be costs for others – a structural change rarely delivers an even spread of costs and benefits.
Charting a way through what is bound to be a difficult transition will not be straightforward, particularly given the ongoing demands of the crisis itself, the rising toll on the public finances, and uncertainties about the scale and nature of the behavioural changes the crisis will have unlocked.
We must also remember that there was already a major economic and environmental transport “to do” list before the crisis. The challenges of delivering the switch to zero carbon, levelling-up our communities, and improving productivity have not gone away. Commuter networks, and the labour markets they serve, were always going to need to play a key part in solving these long-term problems, but the changes unlocked by the pandemic will mean a different set of answers.