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.
Sadly, this doesn’t mean dusting off a set of fully worked up, fit for purpose and affordable pre-COVID plans and adjusting them for the new normal. The pre-COVID blueprint was still a work in progress, with basic questions as yet unanswered, including:
- What does levelling-up really mean, and what does this translate into in terms of the commuter networks, housing and related programmes we need to provide?
- How do we plan, fund and maintain commuter networks that are fit for purpose and maximise the returns to public investment?
- How do we drive decarbonisation while also supporting investment that improves productivity and inclusion?
- How do ensure we actually deliver truly shovel-worthy projects?
As a contribution to this debate, we’ve put together a new paper, in collaboration with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), that sets out a series of practical recommendations to help address these challenges and the adjustments the pandemic will require. The paper brings together insights from business to support thinking as government considers the balance of spending between departments this autumn.
Our recommendations centre on a more strategic and programme-based approach to the planning, funding and delivery of transport and related investment. This means reshaping decision-making processes to bring together all the decisions necessary to maximise the benefits from public investment and deliver against zero carbon and levelling up objectives.
As part of this, the paper includes recommendations on:
- Providing the National Infrastructure Commission with greater operational independence for more clarity on the investment necessary to meet levelling-up and zero carbon objectives
- Establishing 10-year funding settlements for regional infrastructure as a whole
- Changes to the Green Book approach to focus government value for money assessments on joined up programmes capable of making a real difference, rather than individual projects
- Focusing on driving delivery as well as increasing investment through improving planning capacity and capability within local authorities.
Download the paper for further insights into the future of commuting.