Businesses can steer us away from Carmageddon

Lockdown has provided us with the biggest behaviour change programme we have ever seen. It would be a real travesty if we went back to ‘business as usual’ without locking in some of the benefits achieved during lockdown.

Ann O’Driscoll, North Bristol Suscom.

Wherever you’ve worked over the last three months, most of us can agree that lockdown has been challenging. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that its impact will be far-reaching and long-lasting.

But, as the West of England emerges from lockdown with the rest of the country, it feels right to reflect on some positive things to emerge from this crisis that are worth holding on to.

Businesses at the West of England Initiative’s latest meeting heard from those leading the local conversation on how we travel about lockdown’s impact on traffic congestion, air quality and carbon emissions. The findings are stark:

  • Peak time traffic levels in Bristol are said to be around 40% lower than pre-lockdown levels, although are back on the increase.
  • Bus passenger numbers are reported to be at around 13% of ordinary levels.
  • Air quality in cities is markedly improved as traffic has fallen.

As a regular bus user and director of a business based in Bristol, I’ve experienced up close the challenges of getting into and around the city. Issues discussed at the latest Initiative meeting have been topics of debate for years. Lockdown has cut through this debate and forced changes to how we work and travel that some businesses may wish to hold onto, or at least move away from gradually.

One of those big changes relates to how we will travel into work, now that many employees have got used to working from home. With traffic being the biggest cause of carbon emissions, it feels like the region is at a crossroads over the question of how we get around.

Do we want to lock in some environmental and health benefits gained over recent months, or are we happy to head towards ‘Carmageddon’, in the words of Pure Electric’s Director of Public Affairs Tom McPhail?

Different routes back to ‘new normal’

Talking of a ‘staggered return’ to reopening across the retail and hospitality sectors, Initiative CEO and Business West Executive Director James Durie explained how some businesses are grappling with this question.

“I have had a sense from speaking to businesses with office-based workers that many are taking more of a ‘wait and see’ approach and are not rushing back,” he said.

He added that some employers are considering leaving it until next year before returning to their offices.

As shops and businesses start to reopen, a staggered return could provide respite for partners who are looking to accelerate a mass switch from car use to other forms of transport.
Jason Humm, Head of Transport at the West of England Combined Authority set out some regional measures to provide walking and cycling routes across the region. Around £13m is being invested in such measures across Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use these changes in behaviour and cement some positive outcomes, not least on air quality and climate change,” said Jason.

Alongside these initiatives, different options for people to get about the city are also becoming more readily available. Electric bikes and scooters are becoming more popular, causing government to consider pilots for using e-scooters across country.

Pure Electric’s Tom McPhail said this smart switch needs to happen alongside a ‘much more ambitious’ programme to get many more people cycling. The government’s strategy to double the amount of cycling activity should be set towards a ten-fold increase to achieve carbon neutrality targets, he said.

There are longer-term initiatives needed to support this shift, of course. The region’s early work to deliver mass transit connecting Bristol Airport, Bradley Stoke and Emersons Green to the city centre is the most high profile example of this. But while these ‘big ticket’ initiatives remain years away, businesses and commuters faces important choices about the role we all play in shaping the ‘new normal’.

Bringing about change

Businesses were well aware of the challenges of congestion before lockdown. We have learned in recent months that change can happen and now face some important choices as restrictions ease.

This is where behaviour change comes into play, in my view. As a comms professional, I’m supportive of well-considered behaviour change campaigns and interested in how they will be delivered.

Raising awareness of available options to businesses and workers will be an important part of any behaviour change strategy. A campaign to get businesses in Bristol to support cycling will soon get underway, alongside measures to support those who are reopening and safely restarting trading.

Investing in measures alongside this to turn enforced changes into a regular habit of choice will be essential.

Here’s a recording of the meeting.

West of England Initiative meeting on 26 June

A version of this article was published on Business West’s website. Thanks to the Business West team for asking me to provide this update.

More information for businesses who are adjusting to the coronavirus outbreak can be found here.

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash.