Coronavirus (COVID-19): Transport Transition Plan

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This post looks at the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on transport and travel in Scotland, possible future changes in travel patterns as restrictions are eased, the response of transport stakeholders to date and key points in Transport Scotland’s Transport Transition Plan, published on 26 May 2020.

How does Scotland travel?

The proportion of trips made in Scotland during 2018 by different types of transport, to work, school and for all purposes, are set out in the table below.

Journeys to work
Journeys to school
All trips

It is worth noting that these national figures hide some significant differences between local authority areas.  One major difference is the importance of public transport in Scotland’s major cities compared with other areas, e.g. 28% of journeys to work were made by bus in Edinburgh and 15% by rail in Glasgow, while 37% and 49% of trips to work were made by car (as a driver or passenger) respectively.

What impact has lockdown had on travel?

Transport Scotland report in the Transition Plan that:

During lockdown, the demand for public transport has fallen by 85% to 95% against the “normal” levels and operators have reduced services across all modes, for example, rail services are running at approximately 40% and bus around 30%.

The impact on road traffic has also been significant, but less severe than public transport, as highlighted at the daily UK Government coronavirus briefings.  The most recent figures show that road traffic was running at 59% of normal levels across the UK on 21 May 2020 – although there has been a steady increase in traffic levels from a lockdown low of 23% of normal traffic on 13 April 2020.

Trips made on foot and by bike have increased during lockdown, with Cycling Scotland reporting that significant increases in cycling have been recorded by traffic counters across Scotland compared with previous years.

Is there scope for change as lockdown is lifted?

There is scope for many trips currently made by car or public transport to be made on foot or by bike.  During 2018, 42% of all trips made as the driver of a car and 48% of journeys by bus were less than 5km (3.1 miles) in length. 

More specifically, there is scope for changes in the way people travel to work.  Of those who travel to work by car, 26% of drivers and 47% of passengers travel less than 5km, while 48% of drivers and 72% of passengers travel less than 10km (6.6 miles). These are trips that many people could make on foot or by bike.

These figures do not account for the complex nature of some people’s daily travel, which may involve trip chains incorporating school drop-off, work, shopping etc. that are dependent on particular modes of transport. In addition, alternatives to car or public transport are lacking in many areas – particularly the availability of safe, direct walking and cycling infrastructure between residential areas and workplaces, shops and other services.

How have travel patterns changed as lockdown has been lifted elsewhere?

Given that many governments are only now slowly loosening restrictions on travel, there is very limited evidence available on how people are choosing to travel after lockdown.  However, research into the lifting of lockdown in certain Chinese cities found that:

As services are restored, ridership is returning in some places, but not to full levels. According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in early March in the megacity of Guangzhou, only 34% of previous metro and bus commuters were using public transit systems, while 40% had shifted to private cars, taxis and ride-hailing, and the rest to walking and biking. In Hangzhou, the provincial capital of southeastern Zhejiang province, a survey at the end of March found the municipal bus system had recovered 50%-60% of regular ridership.

How might travel patterns change in Scotland?

Reflecting the changes reported from China, there may be a significant shift in travel behaviour by those who normally travel by public transport in Scotland.  A poll by Ipsos Mori (Attitudes to Lockdown, impact and consequences), based on interviews with a representative sample of 1,066 British adults aged 18-75 between April 24th and 27th 2020, concluded that 61% of people were either “Not very” or “Not at all” comfortable with the idea of using public transport should lockdown be ended within the next month – compared with 21% who were “very” or “fairly” comfortable with the idea.

On a more practical level, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity told the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee at its meeting of 13 May 2020 that:

The level of physical distancing will obviously affect the supply of public transport; operators estimate that the 2m rule could mean that capacity will be between 10 and 25 per cent of normal levels.

Clearly, any significant return to work and education would require many people to seek an alternative to their normal bus or rail trips, particularly at peak times – where services often run at or close to 100% capacity.  Any significant switch from public transport to car could have significant effects on road traffic levels, congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, given that 515 million journeys were made by public transport in Scotland during 2018 – many during peak commuting periods.

What impact might a significant reduction in passenger capacity have on transport providers in Scotland?

Any significant reduction in passenger numbers would result in a substantial fall in fare income for bus, rail and ferry operators.  This could have a serious impact on the longer-term viability of such companies.  The Bus Industry Performance 2019 report produced by Passenger Transport Insight states that:

…operating margins fell back to 6.2% from last year’s 6.7%. This was the lowest level since 2006/07. We estimate that operators need to earn 8% or more in order to meet their financial obligations and invest for the future…According to our analysis, fewer than a third of the companies in the latest survey reached that target.

Similarly, the ScotRail franchise holder Abellio has never taken a dividend from the franchise and has operated the service at a loss for several years. The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) has also highlighted that the lockdown has had a “devastating effect” on coach operators, which normally provide a significant proportion of home-school transport and support for the tourist industry.  Action taken by the Scottish Government to assist bus and rail operators is outlined below.

What has the Scottish Government done to date?

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity made a statement to Parliament on 28 April 2020, during which he announced a number of actions, including:

  • Continued payment of concessionary travel reimbursement and bus service operators grant (BSOG) to bus operators at the levels forecast prior to the Covid-19 lockdown
  • Temporary variations to the ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper passenger rail franchises.  The Scottish Government has effectively assumed full responsibility for the provision of these rail services, with the franchise holders continuing to deal with day-to-day service provision.  The Scottish Government estimates this will cost an additional £258m over the six months to September.
  • Support for CalMac Ferries to provide a level of service that meets the basic needs of those living in island and remote communities.
  • Contracted Loganair to provide lifeline air services between the Scottish mainland and certain islands, currently operating until the end of May. 
  • Announced that £10m of active travel expenditure would be reallocated, in a programme managed by Sustrans to be known as “Spaces for people”, which will provide local authorities with 100% funding for the creation of temporary walking and cycling infrastructure.
  • Established a rail recovery taskforce, involving ScotRail, Caledonian Sleeper, Network Rail, Transport Scotland and staff representatives.
  • Transport Scotland exploring ways that major capital schemes can be restarted, to help boost the economy
  • Transport Scotland investigating how the experience of greater home working might change travel demand in future.

The Transport Transition Plan

Transport Scotland published its Transport Transition Plan, plus associated guidance for transport operators and the public, on 26 May 2020.  This sets out how transport provision will be managed through the four stage easing of lockdown set out in Framework for Decision Making.  The Transition Plan re-iterates many of the points made by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and Parliament, which are summarised above.  Significant new points in the Plan, which are of general interest, include:

  • People are being encouraged to only make essential trips, stay local, work from home and, where trips are deemed necessary, to consider walking, wheeling (a term used to describe movement by wheelchair users) or cycling.  If this is not possible then people are advised to plan ahead to use public transport or to avoid peak periods if travelling by car.
  • Physical distancing, i.e. staying 2m from anyone outside of your household, will apply on public transport during stages 1-3 and possibly during stage 4.
  • Public transport operators must take all reasonable measures to ensure that passengers can stay 2m apart, limit passenger numbers to allow such distancing and ensure that distancing is maintained while people wait to access premises.
  • Passengers and staff will be expected to wear face coverings on public transport vehicles (except certain ferries), as well as at railway and bus stations – with exceptions for young children, those with certain medical conditions and staff working behind screens.  Passengers will be expected to provide their own face coverings.  Wearing a face covering will not be a legal requirement – meaning that there will be no sanction for failing or refusing to do so.
  • Transport Scotland will be working with local authorities, transport operators and other stakeholders to identify changes in travel demand as lockdown is eased and to develop measures to meet or manage such changes, with a particular focus on public transport in the Edinburgh and Glasgow city regions – where the reduction in capacity is likely to have the biggest impact.
  • A Transport Transition Plan National Advisory Group will be established to share best practice and help align local and national action.
  • An Equalities Impact Assessment of the Plan will be carried out.
  • A Multi-Agency Response Team, led by Transport Scotland, will be established to monitor and react to changes in travel patterns during the easing of lockdown.
  • The guidance set out in the Plan comes into effect on 26 May 2020 and will be reviewed in line with the three-weekly cycle applied to the wider lockdown measures.
  • The “Spaces for People” budget is increased from £10m to £30m,  

Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher, Transport and Planning