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The gradual reopening of workplaces and communities around the world poses challenging decisions for transport planners. How can we safely manage demand? How can we implement social distancing in confined spaces? How will this impact capacity? Samya Ghosh and Emmet Ruxton of AECOM’s Urban Space team discuss these questions.

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How could pedestrian behaviour impact the safe operation of transport infrastructure in the future?
  • Updated: 06 Jul 2020
  • Author: Samya Ghosh and Emmet Ruxton of AECOM’s Urban Space

To assume that commuting can be seamlessly resumed at the levels seen before the pandemic is unrealistic. The use of transport infrastructure may be impacted in fundamental ways that need in-depth understanding across all modes.

There will be strategic challenges for transport authorities as they try to provide services for the public and protect frontline staff whilst suffering from a significant revenue drop. A core problem is that no one knows when and how more normal conditions will return. Will transport authorities survive in the same format? Will they be pared back to the bare operational essentials and any previously specified enhancement projects be reconsidered?

There are four key issues:

  • Has the global pandemic changed how people travel to and from work?
  • Do transport systems now have significantly reduced capacity?
  • Will a decline in demand reduce investment in transport networks in the short to medium term?
  • How will pedestrians’ behaviours at different parts of their journeys impact transport systems?

Making the right decisions will be challenging, because a wide range of factors are involved, each of which needs understanding. In terms of public transport services, it will take some time for people to return to work, for companies and offices to reopen. Some organisations have used this time to evaluate the success of their staff working from home – those that can, anyway – and whether a reduction of operating costs can be managed through a reduction in expensive office space. It will take time for people and companies to find new working patterns but many of these decisions could be driven by workers’ ability to travel to work. There are various potential concerns likely to develop in the post lockdown easing situation.

The implementation of social distancing measures on public transport and infrastructure raises several questions:

  • How will heavy ingress/egress/interchange demand be managed within the limited space of metro networks?
  • How will check-in, security, and passport control processing be managed in airports with spatial constraints?
  • How will buses operationally manage reduced capacity of services?
  • How will the re-allocation of road space, for pedestrians and cyclists to maintain social distancing, reduce road network capacity?

Capacity is likely to be severely constrained by any attempts to enforce these measures. The only option may be for transport authorities to enforce protective facial coverings (as recently announced by UK Government) and proceed as before, however, this may not be palatable for users, who may choose to avoid travel altogether.

So, what if travel demand has reduced for the foreseeable future? Investment in infrastructure is typical for economies facing, or beginning, a recession, however, enhancing public transport networks, airports, stations, etc. would appear risky. Investment would be better targeted on more sustainable modes such as cycling and walking, and improvements to the urban environment.

A related problem may occur on pavements and in the public realm in urban centres which normally experience a heavy surge of pedestrian movement during peak times of the day. In such locations the available footway capacities are insufficient even for high density flows. When shops, restaurants, bars and commercial centres are all reopened, there will be an enormous challenge to manage the demand on these spaces with social distancing. It is a concern that anxious pedestrians may step on to the carriageways to avoid physical proximities with other pedestrians and thus causing both safety and capacity concerns for road traffic.

It is important that we make our clients aware of the risk of investment alongside the risks of restarting work. Only by taking the time to understand the changes to travel behaviour and their impacts can a balanced assessment be made to guide decisions reliably. This requires inputs from a range of professional backgrounds and transport planners will play a significant part in this reassessment process, and it is timely to start thinking about the issues.

If you need an understanding of how people use, move and behave in transport infrastructure try Modelling Pedestrian Movement available in print and as an eBook.