The future of post-pandemic commuting
Chris Jones, Consultant in our Industrial & Transportation Practice, discusses how commuting is likely to change in a post-pandemic work environment and what transport businesses can do to respond to the change in customer behaviour
As the United Kingdom is slowly easing out of the government’s lockdown restrictions, companies all over the country are starting to discuss the return of their workforce to the office or primary place of work. Yet, a year after we first left our offices for what we assumed would just be a short, temporary change in circumstances – who does not remember thinking it would all be over by the summer? -, many employees have grown to embrace working from home. Companies have learned that they can rely on their workforce to be as productive in their home office as they would be on company premises, and employees have welcomed the increase in personal time that would otherwise be spent commuting to and from work.
As a result, both employers and employees have voiced their thoughts on what a return to the workplace could look like in the future. There seems to be a shared consensus asking for more flexibility on both sides, with the overriding notion that employees will return to the office for a few days a week or when required, rather than the pre-pandemic normality of Monday to Friday, probably more like Tuesday to Thursday. With home offices and remote working on the rise, what does the subsequent change in customer behaviour mean for transport businesses, both national and international?
The impact of the pandemic on commuting
The past twelve months have undoubtedly thrown the transport industry into great turmoil. An industry that was used to steady growth as demand for travel was on the rise for decades, saw a sudden and unprecedented drop in passenger numbers, while simultaneously having to adapt to the strict requirements for hygiene standards and social distancing rules imposed by the government.
With most of the workforce due to return to the workplace over the coming months, transport businesses are still faced with a sense of uncertainty. Not only is it an unknown factor as to how fast people will be resuming to commute, but the question remains whether people will commute on a daily basis, or rather adopt an ad-hoc model, where they only use public transport on certain days of the week or month. An unusually high number of people have left city centres in favour of suburban or rural living, further changing the way they would normally commute. Simultaneously, we have seen a rise in car journeys in urban areas as residents have made the most of less congestion and the perceived idea that car travel is safer compared to public transport in relation to minimising the risk of getting infected with COVID-19. The challenge for rail, bus and other public transport companies will therefore lie in enticing commuters back on to trains and busses.
Rising to the challenge
How transport businesses respond to the changes in customer behaviour and passenger needs will, in most likelihood, determine how quickly people feel comfortable to commute again, and furthermore, how frequent they will choose to commute via public transport. This raises the question what transport businesses can do to entice customers to return to commuting and how they can meet the requirements of their passengers.
In all likelihood, bus companies will have greater flexibility to adapt more rapidly than rail companies which operate on fixed lines and have already introduced ‘vaccinated travel passes’ for over 60’s. For both, bus and rail, the focus needs to be on clean and safe travel even more so for London Underground, which suffered more than most in terms of people stopping to use their services. With the rise in people taking up cycling during lockdown, perhaps rail and bus companies could look at how they could incorporate cycle carriage onto their vehicles. For instance, if we imagine commuting by train from Reading to London Paddington, and then cycling to the City of London to work, being able to carry a bike on the train would be a huge incentive for commuters. Similarly, combining a bus journey with cycling (particularly handy during inclement weather) would encourage more people to travel at least part of their commute on public transport. However, in order for this to become a reality, passengers need to be able to plan their commute without the worry of whether they can carry their bike on a train or bus, which is currently a big obstacle.
Another incentive for commuters would be to introduce new and improve existing WIFI connections onboard of trains and busses. It would help enhance customer experiences and allow commuters to work while travelling, while providing the travel companies with much needed opportunities to generate new revenue streams by providing infotainment options.
Flexible and adaptive ticketing is another way passengers could be enticed back onboard, with increased off-peak offers or transferable tickets. In this specific instance, it is crucial that the customer need is heeded instead of the operational convenience of running fixed timetables.
A future of innovation and flexibility
Moving forward, one thing is certain: the model of subsidy supported travel is set to continue. While it is looking unlikely that passenger numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels - at least in the immediate future - capacity will have to be offered to allow for the much-needed flexibility, which will see revenues continue to suffer. Innovation and flexibility will have to be on the agenda for rail and bus companies if they want to get ahead of the competition and move towards former levels of profitability.
If you would like to discuss this article in more detail, or get more information about our Industrial & Transportation Practice, please contact Chris Jones.