Post-COVID urban transport: Is this the end of rush hour?


Herbert Smith Freehills LLP is launching a focus on 'future cities' in which it will explore how cities can and will evolve.

In this article, its head of infrastructure, Patrick Mitchell, discusses the transport hub of the future, how technology may drive interconnectivity between previously unlinked modes and the investment needed to drive better infrastructure post COVID-19.

An irresistible force paused?

Since the end of the Second World War, the growth of cities – and the transport networks that support them - has been relentless. In 1950, less than a third of the world’s population lived in towns and cities, yet by 2007 the UN estimated that more people in the world lived and moved around within urban areas than rural spaces.


This trend towards ever-greater urbanisation was believed to be perpetual and irreversible. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where once questions were being asked about ways to enhance transport networks, now the burning question on most peoples’ lips is one of adaptation: how can we travel to meet personal and professional needs, yet do so without risking the spread of infection?

The hope must be that normal life will return, even if some things will not be the same. With this in mind, those responsible for developing future transport infrastructure must consider what we need to do now to ensure readiness for that change.

After all, while modern transport has allowed us to travel further and faster, and in much greater numbers, a major effect of the pandemic can be seen in society’s confidence levels. Crowded commuter trains becoming a distant memory, air travel reductions and fewer cars on the road combine to challenge our understanding of our future transport network needs.

Trends not changes

Yet I would argue those suggesting the past few months have created a sudden change in our belief system about transport needs are mistaken. Even before COVID-19, attitudes towards modern travel were evolving. In my view it is more likely that the pandemic will one day be viewed as an accelerant of trends that have already appeared.

Think about it for a moment: the interconnectivity offered by home IT and the internet, and the ever more important drive to achieve net-zero emissions, have kept policymakers and analysts thinking for some time, not just since COVID-19 emerged.

The only difference is that what needs to be considered has been added to, rather than changed. This is simply because the immediate effects of COVID-19 on the transport industry are still being revealed.

That guidelines on social distancing are being reconciled with the need to open up the economy cannot be denied. Yet how long businesses will operate flexible working practices so populations avoid public transport is unknown. It means that, as people trickle back to their traditional workplace, options are needed to ensure safe travel.

Crowded commuter trains are a distant memory

Occupancy limits are, of course, one option where travel is essential. That’s why decisions, such as the UK Government’s to deploy thousands of transport marshals who prevent services becoming overcrowded, are a good idea. I’m not sure it will be welcomed over the long-term so perhaps this means, as happened in Beijing, that a reservation system could be introduced to combat overcrowding.

Commuting without the rush

As businesses and workers adapt, the daily rush hour commute may also be consigned to history. For many employers the position is changing on a daily basis with some indicating that they are considering long-term rethinks on location strategy and flexible working.

No longer obliged to be near city centres, there is evidence emerging of office workers living in densely-populated cities deciding to move to more rural areas. The effect is an increase in the need for more localised public transport that is not predominantly focused on moving people into and out of city centres during rush hours.

Changes in transport use will also draw a focus on interconnectivity between transport modes, greater timetable and fare flexibility, and user experience for longer distance travel. 'Smart buses' that alter their routes based on demand would reduce reliance on private vehicles and improve accessibility.

Within an ever-growing sharing economy, greater rates of cycling and the development of autonomous electric vehicles will add to a shift from mass transit.

It means that the pop-up bicycle lanes set up in cities during the COVID-19 pandemic will need to be maintained and extended further in line with net-zero policies.

In many cities in the UK, as well as Paris and Milan, we have already heard plans to keep certain roads closed to cars post-lockdown to make more space available to cyclists and pedestrians. 

Substantial investment will be required. As populations become more decentralised, there will be an increased demand for improved broadband and mobile data access, infrastructure for charging electric vehicles, technology enabling the widespread use of autonomous vehicles and smarter transport, and greater intercity rail capacity.

COVID-19 has already caused financial strain on transport operators as well as significant demands on the public treasury. In such a context, private finance will play an important role in developing and financing the infrastructure needed to meet our changing needs.

So are we going to move full steam ahead?

COVID-19 will be a catalyst for transport trends that have been developing for some time.

However, as future capital projects are being paused and reconsidered in the current climate, it is clear that governments should use this opportunity to ensure that the transition is managed through a clear, whole-system approach. This will help the many competing objectives – encouraging sustainable economic growth, achieving net-zero, maintaining public wellbeing and improving the interconnectivity of public transport – all be achieved.

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