Feature Article: COVID-19 Travel Behaviours

Our final feature article for this year’s FTVG initiative focuses on a project to examine emerging travel behaviours brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Through examining the latest literature and conducting industry interviews, the group hope to produce a prospectus outlining these changes that can help other transport professionals.  The group is formed of Charles Wain, Emily Cowling and Ian Woodhouse.

Understanding the challenges of the pandemic

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has had broad-ranging impacts on society and its behaviours and habits.  It has generated a lot of uncertainties in the transport industry that are constantly evolving.  The group’s project stemmed from the idea that whilst the immediate impacts of the pandemic on travel behaviours have been analysed, the longer-term implications had yet to be explored in detail.

“The last 12 months have had such a huge impact on all our lives and some of the restrictions put in place were unimaginable only a short time before the pandemic.  This has raised several questions about future travel patterns and as such possible implications for transport planning and policy”, explains Charles Wain, a network strategy manager at Highways England

“We thought it would be a useful exercise to try and understand how transport professionals think the next 5-10 years may play out,” he added.

Emily Cowling, a transport strategy officer at Transport for Greater Manchester, agreed that more research was needed to understand the inherent uncertainties in planning future transport;

“People in the industry are making decisions about the future with limited evidence – I wanted to add to the evidence base to support this process”, she said

Ian Woodhouse, a transport planner at Mott MacDonald also spotted a gap in the market for articulating these challenges;

“We felt we could add value by researching what the legacy of COVID-19 may be in terms of whether it will result in behaviour change or ‘business as usual’, and what this may mean for transport planning and policy in the future”, he said.

The team all met via the FTVG workshops hosted in Autumn 2020 to bring people together with similar research interests and were successfully awarded funding to develop their project in 2021.

An industry view

Beginning with a review of the latest policy and travel behaviour literature, the group collated viewpoints from across the transport sector to synthesise a joined-up perspective on future travel demand.

“We sought the views of transport practitioners on the medium to long term impact of COVID-19 on travel behaviours”, explained Emily, “The outputs from this initial survey then informed a more detailed round-table discussion so we could understand some of the detail.”

Ian then outlined some of the next steps;

“We plan to present our outputs in an infographic that can be picked up and used by the wider industry. We are also beginning to develop a short report to provide more detail our findings and recommendations for what the long-term implications of COVID-19 may be on transport planning and policy.”

Charles acknowledged that in a rapidly changing situation, it is important to remain up to date with the latest trends;

“The round-table discussions helped capture the latest industry view on these longer-term changes, and we’ll be monitoring any new research that emerges as the project progresses”.

The group’s funding was used to provide incentives for participants to take part in the round-table sessions and to produce an output prospectus with inputs from a graphic designer.  The group hope that the prospectus will be a helpful resource to other transport practitioners;

“I hope that the project can help decision-makers in the sector by providing insight on the medium/long-term impacts of COVID-19”, outlined Emily.  This sentiment was echoed by Ian who said,

“I hope that our project will provide an insight into what transport practitioners think the long-term impacts of COVID-19 may be and how this may influence transport planning and policy in the future to help shape the post-COVID recovery we want.”

Charles added,

“Firstly, I’m hoping we can provide an understanding of the common areas of uncertainty facing the sector, and where different opinions are starting to emerge.  Secondly, it would be great if we can promote debate on what the transportation sector should focus on in the next decade as we transition to a ‘new normal’ and whatever that may entail.”

The group will be publishing their findings in summer this year, with all materials available through the FTVG website.

Working in “the new normal”

The group’s efforts were never too far away from the impacts of the pandemic, with all the collaboration and workshops conducted online.  Whilst the group and its wider participants were unable to meet face to face, the opportunity to meet virtually has helped them broaden their professional networks;

I have already seen the benefit of expanding my horizons, approaching a project from a different perspective, meeting and working with a range of transport practitioners and developing my own opinions on the impact of COVID-19,” said Emily

Ian agreed that the engagement aspect had been valuable, in addition to gaining valuable project management experience;

“The opportunity to manage a research project and work collaboratively with colleagues from other organisations will be of great benefit to my professional development. Engaging with a wide range of transport practitioners will hopefully also enhance my reputation amongst the transport profession and expand my network, something not always possible in day-to-day work.”

Charles hoped that the group’s results would complement the outputs of the wider FTVG initiative;

“Working with Emily and Ian has been great; we each bring a different perspective to the project and I’ve really enjoyed some of the discussion we’ve had so far. I am also really interested to see what comes from some of the other projects being taken forward as part of the FTVG. It has been a fantastic opportunity for young professionals to debate, discuss and contribute to the future of the sector.”

Keep watching for updates from FTVG on the outcomes of this and the other four projects.

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