With the UK taking its first tentative steps out of lockdown, more attention is being paid to the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the future of mobility. While the spotlight has been thrust on the automotive and airline industry bailouts and the viability of public transport while social distancing, very little attention has been given to the scale of behaviour change that will be required to keep cities moving.

Data from CityMapper shows that public transport usage is already increasing in urban centres around the world. During the early stages of lockdown in London, the use of public transport was 7% of the pre-COVID “normal” level; this past week, that increased to 18% of pre-COVID levels.

Not surprisingly, most research into commuting behaviour has focussed on catalysing change from cars to public transport or ride-sharing. There’s not much that looks at transitioning people away from public transport – which is the problem facing cities like London today as we look ahead to eventual returns to offices in some shape or form.

Government, industry and commuters must question whether current changes to transport behaviours – or the absence of any transport behaviour, for that matter – will stick or if we will revert to old habits and modalities when the immediate risk from the pandemic clears.

After the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London underground, Londoners avoided the tube for months, while bike retailers reported that sales quadrupled in the week following the attack. Despite that initial spike in interest, the overall impact of the terrorist attack on commuting patterns was relatively small in terms of long-term change, with cycles still only accounting for 2.5% of all trips in London in 2018.

I was one of those people who dipped my toe in the world of cycling after the attacks – purchasing a shiny new bike thinking that if I made the investment, I’d keep it up. But despite my financial commitment, the habit didn’t stick. Why not?

Fear – for my life. Quite simply, I felt safer on the tube than I did on a cycle on the streets. I dreaded being on the street more than I did the tube.

As the government seeks to push more Londoners to “active transport”, it must grapple with dread behaviour and address the safety concerns of commuters – both those concerned with social distancing on public transport and those like myself who are concerned with their safety on the roads while cycling or scooting.

How best to do that?

Infrastructure investment + clear communications: vital for building trust in active and public transport

Providing infrastructure is known to be one of the best ways to increase cycling uptake, and the government has made laudable investments to make London more cycle- and scooter-friendly with cycle super-highways and adjusted traffic patterns. Infrastructure to increase safety is particularly vital for driving uptake in under-represented segments of the population, including women.

For many in London, however, cycling is simply not an option – the average commute in the city is over 13 miles. Efforts to increase levels of active transport are necessary, but so too is maintaining confidence in the quality and safety of public transport. Alongside increasing the frequency of services, the government must communicate what it is doing to preserve health and safety to reassure commuters for whom active transport is not a viable option. Additionally, the government and transport operators need to provide accurate, real-time data on public transport congestion so commuters can make informed choices and travel at less crowded times, in less crowded carriages.

A well-timed, well-crafted message on personal benefit and ease of action could tip the balance

The government’s “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” public awareness campaign was widely lauded; “Stay Alert”… not so much. We have yet to see a similar public information campaign from the government encouraging more sustainable, active transport practices to catalyse and crystalise long-term behaviour change.

A successful campaign will be driven not only by message, but also by timing: launching in parallel with significant changes to lockdown rules, dovetailing with infrastructure and incentives measures, and at a point when there is a level of trust in the government.

Pay it forward: shine a light on the wider benefit of sustainable choices as we work to build back better

In the short term, active transport will keep the curve flattened and get our cities moving again, supporting the recovery of the economy. But there is an emerging body of evidence that suggests active transport can contribute to long-term economic health as well.

For example, in New York City bicycle parking has delivered five times higher retail spend than in the same area of car parking. Here in London, TfL research suggests that if every Londoner walked or cycled for 20 minutes a day, we could save £1.7 billion in treatment costs over the next two decades. And, in cities across Europe, we are already seeing the benefits of reduced transport emissions, with air quality increasing dramatically and air pollution-related deaths dropping. In London alone, estimates indicate we have avoided nearly 2,000 pollution deaths since the lockdown began.

Disruption and shock are known to be catalysts for change and, while the scale of the COVID pandemic is unprecedented, London has seen shocks before. We can learn from this in terms of how commuter behaviour changed in response to the crisis and what can be done to incentivise the behaviour change necessary to deliver the green mobility revolution this city deserves.