Travel & Transport

Deepest disappointment and glimmers of hope…

I wrote a while back about how I hoped people’s travel behaviours – both locally and on a global scale – would change in the post-pandemic world. This is the first in a short series of posts to reflect on those hopes and on my own travel actions and aspirations.

Many cyclists, walkers and urban residents alike will relate to the sense of relief and satisfaction that came with the quiet roads of the lockdown period. What a joy to be able to enjoy travelling by foot or bike without fear of being squashed at any moment, and to be able to move freely by car on those occasions when you really needed to. Oh, how I thought people would realise how much better life was for spending so much less of it in a car, realise the rewards of active travel, recognise that so many of their usual trips were unnecessary, and that life as it returned back towards ‘normal’ would lose a little of its car-centricity. This felt like such a tangible, almost inevitable outcome during those early weeks, and yet, as far as I can see now, couldn’t have been further than the truth of the situation that transpired.

What happened, in fact, was that as soon as people were allowed out and about again, the volume of traffic on the roads very quickly returned almost to pre-lockdown levels, compounded no doubt in my area by the combination of scorching summer weather, the proximity of one of Europe’s best beaches and the proportion of people still furloughed or off school. What gets to me though isn’t the number of vehicles on the road per se – disappointing as that is in itself – but the behaviour of those in charge of them: there has been a palpable upturn in aggressive driving, the proportion of inconsiderate and frankly dangerous drivers through the roof compared to pre-lockdown times (and it wasn’t great in these parts before).

Why is this? Understandably some groups of people are perhaps more stressed than usual, and hot weather is known to bring about higher levels of anger and antisocial behaviour in general, not just on the roads (case in point: the major incident that was declared in Bournemouth & Poole during the heatwave  at the end of June). But what of the supposed increased sense of community spirit and greater good brought on by the pandemic? I’m struggling to see evidence of this anymore and am instead faced with ever-growing polarisation and individualisation; every person out for themselves, getting from A to B as fast as possible no matter the consequences. An avid cyclist, I’m bordering on frightened to go out in my local area because of how things are on the roads, and historically I’ve been one to suck it up and, keep my wits about me and deal with the dick-moves when they come; all part of being a ‘roady’; but it feels like it’s gone beyond that point now and that the level of risk is tangibly high enough to avoid certain areas at all costs.

This isn’t, however, meant as a sob story about my own life. Five people a day – cyclists and walkers – are killed on the roads my motor vehicles in the UK every day, a sad fact that is under-reported and not at all adequately dealt with. What’s more, this figure will inevitably increase if people’s driving doesn’t become more considerate.

And that’s not to mention the environmental impact brought on by the sheer volume of traffic on the roads: it has been reported that during lockdown – which obviously involved a huge reduction in all forms of transport, notably flying, as well as car driving – globally there was just a 5% decrease in carbon emissions (though this could be as high as 8%). Bearing in mind that the level of reduction required per year to limit global warming to acceptable levels is 7.6% per year this decade, you can see there is a long way to go. If a global lockdown barely generates such a reduction in emissions, as life returns to what people like to call ‘normal’, some drastic changes are needed in the way we live those normal lives, with the way (and amount) we travel being a key part of the puzzle.

In an encouraging development occurring as a direct result of the pandemic, local authorities in the UK have been able to draw on funding to make walking & cycling more practical and appealing. With a progressive council leadership currently in place in my own local area, this has led to rapid and meaningful action to stand up new bike lanes and ‘modal filters’ which make active travel more attractive and, crucially, will encourage people to think twice before making short journeys by car (because certain residential streets are no longer usable as through-routes by motor vehicle).

Whilst having a mixed range of impacts – making angry drivers angrier being a possible by-product, for instance – such measures are fairly quick and simple to implement yet could transform a local area once they’ve had time to bed in. our own local council is running consultations on new schemes which may lead to their becoming permanent as positive feedback comes in. at the same time, those people who would prefer to drive everywhere (but are physically able to do otherwise) may slowly come to terms with the ‘new normal’ and discover the benefits of active travel for themselves.

So there we have it: for me, both deepest disappointment and glimmers of hope in terms of the influence of COVID-19 on people’s travel choices. Of course, my views are shaped by my own frame of reference, both in terms of existing beliefs & values and the unique experience of my own local area. How do you relate to what I’ve written here, if at all? What were your own hopes ad aspirations for the impact of COVID-19 on the world, and have these been realised? I’d love to hear about it…

Travel & Transport

Moving forward from COVID: How I hope travel habits will change

One positive thing I hope will emanate from the COVID-19 pandemic is an increased propensity for people to travel conscientiously. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the benefits I see being generated by the situation, one of them being environmental improvements. It has been encouraging to see miraculous improvements in air quality, most strikingly northern India having a view of the Himalayas for the first time in decades. I kind of think there’s an element of nature knowing what it’s doing, and the pandemic being its way of accelerating some sorely needed societal changes in a bid to save the planet from itself.

Of course, travel and transport can’t and won’t remain restricted to current levels, and indeed that wouldn’t be desirable even to the most dedicated eco-warrior. However, it seems likely that global travel will take quite some time to get back to normal, and rightly so. I hope that for many people, having been under such constraints will add more meaning to the idea of freedom to move around the world; make people realise the value of this amazing privilege.

Travel is undeniably nourishing for the soul and good for our wellbeing. It expands our minds, connects us with nature, introduces us to amazing people ad cultures, gives us much-needed rest & recuperation time. But all this comes at such an enormous cost to the planet: each passenger on a plane from London to New York accounts for the carbon-emission equivalent of an average car-driver for a whole year. Multiply that by the number of people per flight and the number of flights going here, there and everywhere each day, and it’s easy to see we have a problem.

Exploring my local area and feeling like I’m on holiday!

It’s only in recent years that I’ve become aware of how lucky I am to be able to travel, and the impact that doing so has on the planet. It really is such a privilege, yet it’s so easy and often cheap these days that it’s naturally taken for granted. I’ve become a far more conscious traveller in the last couple of years, being careful not to fly often and creative about the other options I can take advantage of (more on this in a later post!).

A vital component of my greener travel philosophy is the train. Sadly, the services are under-resourced and over-priced here in the UK, and there has long been a tendency for people to fly short distances (say, London to Manchester or Edinburgh) ‘because it’s cheaper’. Incidentally, recent events have highlighted just how precarious that fact was: FlyBe going bust whilst the British rail service remains intact just goes to show it wasn’t cheaper; the operator simply wasn’t charging enough to build the required amount of resilience into the business. (I’m just a tad less inclined to complain so much about the prices of trains here now, though it still infuriates me that I pay more to commute by public transport than I would to go by car as a sole occupant).

Clearly the airline industry is going to need quite some recovery from the current situation, which may well mean that people have no choice but to fly less because of availability. People may be encouraged to ask themselves: ‘do I really need to fly?’, and perhaps be more inclined to choose alternatives or travel less frequently. Gone are the days, surely, where business jet people off for a day here, an overnight stop there, mindlessly booking flight after flight after flight without a thought for the effects. Companies have been forced to work smarter by the current situation, and I think they’re really waking up to the prospect that travel simply isn’t necessary in many instances. Not only that, but there are so many benefits to remote working: increased productivity, improved staff wellbeing, cost savings… the list goes on.

Train travel: the way forward in the new world?

Back to our holidaymakers, globe-trotters and travel enthusiasts. Will we see people making more conscious decisions about the way the get around? I hope so. Having something taken away helps us realise the value of it, and I think that’s what will happen here. This brings to mind something I often think about modern Western life: that we have too much of everything and, as a result, too little appreciation. I recall stories from my parents and grandparents about how, when they were younger, every little thing had to be saved for, planned in, worked towards. That is so different from the life I know where I could have whatever I want, whenever I want, in a world of online shopping and instant gratification. Much as I’m grateful to live so comfortably, I sometimes envy them: it’s all too easy and I yearn for that sense of reward that comes from really having to earn something. A simpler life, but one that makes you truly appreciate things.

So that’s what I can see happening with travel: the limitations we’re under right now, and will likely be for some time albeit to a lesser extent, will inevitably make people think harder about what they really want out of their travels. What will their priorities be? How could they enjoy adventures closer to home by more sustainable travel methods? Will they limit trips by plane to once a year, perhaps?

We’re entering a new world; we have to be. People talk longingly about ‘going back to normal’, but things will never be the same as they were. Daunting as that may seem to some, my own dream is for a better world, with the current darkness making way for a brighter dawn than before. The earth has given us a second chance to live in harmony with it, and I for one hope we all seize it with the utmost enthusiasm.

How do you think COVID-19 will affect people’s travel behaviour? Will you be making any changes yourself as a result of these times? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to follow me for more on my green travel stories.