On Tuesday 2nd February, the Industry and Parliament Trust hosted a virtual discussion titled, Keeping Public Transport Moving Post-COVID. This was chaired by Lilian Greenwood MP, of the Select Committee on Transport. Katy Taylor, Chief Strategy and Customer Officer of the Go Ahead Group and myself, Professor Paul Herriotts, Professor of Transport Design at the National Transport Design Centre (NTDC), Coventry University, were invited to provide our insight into the matter. It proved to be an interesting and stimulating event with a lively Q and A session.
Restoring public transport passenger numbers
It is clear that public transport will play a critical role in ensuring that the UK will meet its ambitious target to be net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Even prior to COVID-19, the NTDC’s focus on user-centred design was helping to ensure that technological developments in the mobility sector retained a focus on meeting the differing needs of a diverse population, for example by exploring the potential for autonomous vehicles to revolutionise access to transport for disabled people.
This is even more important in a post-COVID world. While passenger experience might have always have been a determining factor as to whether a person uses a form of transport, today people have very real concerns as to the safety and cleanliness of public transport. The industry must address these if it is to recover to pre-COVID levels.
Perceptions of safe travel
A nationwide survey undertaken by the NTDC of around 1200 respondents indicated that 8% of people say they would never use public transport prior to the pandemic. This rises to over 12% post-pandemic (WiCET, 2021). A US study further suggests that the risk of infection is impacting the transportation decisions of 70% of respondents (Motional, 2020).
The question of trust
The challenge facing the public transport industry is how to reinstate trust in potential passengers. Overcoming this depends on clear communication of relevant and desired information: when was the bus last cleaned? How many people are on board?
Simple measures for immediate impact
Rather than allowing potential passengers to speculate as to the cleanliness of a particular service, a display on the outside of the bus that informs them when it was last cleaned would help them to make an informed decision as to whether to use it or not. Likewise, a display either outside the bus or at the next stop notifying passengers as to how full the bus is would also be of benefit. If passengers are able to see the first bus is 80% full (for example) but the following bus is only 20% full, they may prefer to wait for a perceived safer experience.
Naturally, these measures do need to be backed by stringent safety protocols. Transport operators in the USA are now referring to “the theatre of cleaning”. While traditionally, cleaning was perhaps perceived as a necessary task, but one to be undertaken out of sight of passengers, operators are now understanding that for people to regain trust they need to see such activities taking place. Establishing procedures to clean buses, trains and taxis during the day and between journeys when passengers are present becomes important.
Considering all of the experience
Regaining passenger trust will require every step of the transport journey to be considered safe. For instance, when purchasing tickets the need to facilitate contactless payments is evident. Handling cash introduces unwanted risk from the passenger’s perspective.
Addressing passenger concerns with future designs
In September 2020 the NTDC unveiled a pandemic-proof vehicle concept. This incorporates a number of innovations, including the ability to manage shared space via folding and sliding panels and the use of materials with anti-viral properties. While some of the features (such as the use of continuously cleaning micro-robots) may seem some way off commercialisation, it is important to note that designing the vehicle with easy cleaning in mind and fitting the aforementioned displays to indicate cleanliness are relatively low-cost initiatives that could be implemented in existing designs moving forward. As always, adopting a user-centred design ethos that consults with end users will result in a design that works for all.
Words by Paul Herriotts, Professor of Transport Design at the National Transport Design Centre at Coventry University
WiCET, Innovate UK 32644 (2021).