In the lockdown, cycling and walking have increased, but public transport traffic has fallen more than car traffic.
Socialists have long advocated the expansion of public transport, and partly to reduce car use. But at present car traffic is recovering towards pre-lockdown levels much faster than public transport, and that looks likely to continue. That pattern could continue for some time. People don’t want to use public transport because it brings a greater risk of infection than travelling alone in a car.
Permanent working-from-home cannot be the answer, even where possible. Apart from anything else, permanent working-from-home atomises workforces, making union organisation and even ordinary day-to-day solidarity between workers more difficult. Ensuring a good temperature etc. in a large office is also much more energy efficient than many individuals in houses.
Four-day standard working weeks could cut 20% off commuter traffic, and would bring many other benefits. More flexitime would flatten traffic peaks. Options of partial working-from-home (two days in, two days out?) would reduce travel without atomising workforces.
More people have cycled and walked in the lockdown (though mainly not to work), and better “active transport” policies could build on that. 35% of commutes in Copenhagen are by bike. In the Netherlands, 23% of trips made by people over 65 are on a bike, 40% of trips by people under 17 — age is not a barrier.
In Britain, in 2015, commutes by bus averaged 5.3 miles, and by car 10 miles, so similar figures are possible here. An average cyclist could travel 10 miles in under an hour. In urban contexts, traffic systems and lights slow down cars and busses where off-road shortcuts give bikes an advantage. For many journeys, bikes are the fastest mode of transport.
We can get towards that by:
• Configuring streets and cycle routes to be more attractive and pleasant
• Better places for bike storage, showers or changing rooms at work
• Schemes for people to get cheap or free bikes, including e-bikes, and bike maintenance
• Make more streets car-free, and reduce speed limits on others, and stricter rules about overtaking and giving right-of-way to pedestrians and cyclists
• Better bike storage on trains
• Public campaigns to encourage cycling and walking
What about public transport? The evidence from the Seoul Metro or the Berlin U-Bahn is that even quite busy public transport is not a big virus transmission site, at least if infection levels are low and Covid-19 sufferers and identified contacts are supported to self-isolate rigorously. But it is hard to imagine risk being low if people were packed in as densely as they were in pre-lockdown rush-hour, on, say, the London Tube.
The more workers are guaranteed full self-isolation pay, the less feel economically compelled to travel with — or at risk from — potential Covid-19. Lower net infections, likewise, make public transport safer. Wider PPE provision, more regular cleaning, wider provision of hand-washing and sterilising facilities, and the opening of all ticket barriers, are invaluable.
These changes, alone, would however not be enough to avoid an increase in private car use.
Changes to public transport could allow higher numbers of people to safely travel. Where possible, trains, buses, metros, and the Tube should run more frequently than pre-Covid, and with more carriages.
This would all also help longer-term shifts away from cars and airplanes, but requires significant investment, and upgrading of technologies.
While oil prices have now dropped to an historical low, creating a stronger incentive to drive and fly, greener public transport must be much cheaper or free. Much space currently used for car-parking should be repurposed.
The origins and destinations of journeys should not be taken simply as a given, around which different modes of transport and routes must fit.
The configurations of cities grow intertwined with dominant transport methods, but also with the whims of the market.
Denser living is more efficient. More democratically — and rationally — planned distributions within cities of shops and services, homes and parks, workplaces and social spaces will reduce the annoyances and environmental impacts of unnecessarily long journeys.