With the re-opening of many of our favourite haunts over the weekend, life as we know it is beginning, slowly but surely, to return to a sense of normality.
And as people resume the habits of a lifetime, they will need to travel again. So how do we shift the narrative from ‘don’t travel’ to ‘how can I travel safely’? The moment for just saying no to all but essential travel is surely passing, especially as people start to get itchy feet and want to go back to their favourite town and city-centre restaurants, bars, cinemas, and museums.
Perhaps slightly oddly, for many the return to leisure has come before the return to work, with those of us office-based still being told not to commute and to work at home where possible. That needs to change. In London, over half the workforce normally uses public transport to get to work, and in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, it is around 30%. If our vibrant town centres, pubs, restaurants and bars are to survive, they need customers outside of the weekend. They need people to physically come back to the day-job.
It looks increasingly strange that people are being encouraged to take holidays abroad but not to take the tram, tube or bus to get to the airport. No activity is risk-free, from the coronavirus or anything else. But as we trust the British people to use common sense over their holiday plans, then surely we can make the same call when travelling around our homes and across the UK?
As commuter passenger journeys have fallen, safety measures have increased. Transport for London has placed 1,495 hand sanitizers across all underground stations, and put one-way systems in place. Transport bodies in other parts of the country, including Manchester and Tyne and Wear, have done similar. Masks are also now mandatory on public transport.
We know these measures build public confidence. A survey London First undertook in May suggested that deep cleaning, caps on numbers, and changes in office hours to offset traditional peak travel would all encourage people to use public transport to get to work.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. No one wants to see public transport suddenly return to sardine-style packed carriages. But with clarity and consistency of message from central and local government, alongside bus operators, public transport networks and suburban rail services, a managed, gradual return to public transport can take place, at a pace people are comfortable with.
It is time to communicate that public transport can be used, given all the preventative measures in place, and when it is quiet outside of peak times. Businesses will need to be similarly flexible, over hours and working patterns. But when an office can be structured to minimise the risk of infection, it can be open — though probably not 9 – 5 or every day for most of us.
It is source of relief that many people now feel safe enough to return to our leisure activities and see friends and family away from home. We now need to get back to workplaces, at least sometimes; and that means returning to commuting, at least occasionally.
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