Changes in transport behaviour during the Covid-19 crisis

What can we learn from the lessons of the past

The restrictions put in place to limit the diffusion and impacts of Covid-19 have had a widespread impact on people’s lives, and the way energy is used across entire economies.

One of the biggest impacts has been the reduction in passenger transport demand, due to a combination of government lockdowns and fears of contracting and spreading the virus when using mass transport modes. While freight transport has also been reduced, the drivers of freight activity during the current crisis are complex, driven by both supply- and demand-side factors, and in the latter, by the need to keep essential services operating. In contrast, passenger transport, (for both leisure and business travel) is often optional, and more influenced by people’s decision-making processes. The focus of this paper is therefore on passenger transport.

The crisis has affected all forms of transport, from cars, and public transport in cities, to buses, trains and planes nationally and internationally. Global road transport activity was almost 50% below the 2019 average by the end of March 2020 and commercial flight activity almost 75% below 2019 by mid-April 2020. Public transport has also been affected. For example, the strict lockdown imposed in the UK in March 2020 has led to a 95% decrease in underground journeys in London. This is supported by data1 from one popular transport planning smartphone app showing that trips are down by over 90% since the crisis began in many of the world’s major cities.

Note: Changes are compared to a ‘typical usage period’, generally defined as 4 weeks between Jan 6th and Feb 2nd, 2020 although different typical usage periods are used for certain cities.

For the energy sector, this trend has had huge knock-on effects for oil consumption, contributing to a 5% decrease in demand in the first quarter of 2020. With passenger transport responsible for around 40% of final oil demand and 15% of global energy-related carbon emissions, any crisis-induced changes to way we travel will have significant global implications, if changes to transport behaviours become permanent after lockdowns are lifted.

Therefore, a key question for the energy sector is whether changes to transport behaviours during the crisis may result in a permanent change in behaviour (and transport energy use) or if transport patterns will revert to ‘business as usual’ when the crisis ends. Research has shown that disruptions can be a catalyst for shifts towards more sustainable transport behaviours but avoiding a return to pre-crisis behaviours requires governments to take decisive actions.

While the current crisis is unprecedented, in terms of the scale of impacts and government responses, examining past crises can be instructive in informing policy makers how people’s behaviours can change during and immediately following a crisis, and what sort of policy options are available to government to incentivise certain behaviours and discourage others.

In recent decades, there have been a number of crises—including multiple health and terrorism-related crises—that have caused sudden changes in transport demand, as people make significant changes to transport patterns, either in response to changes necessitated by transport disruptions, or perceived risks of travelling. This is particularly true for non-essential travel and in relatively wealthy countries where people have access to remote working facilities or alternative, private forms of transport. For other people, the decision to cease commuting during a crisis may not be an option at all.

Mass transport, which brings people into close proximity with each other, is where some the most tangible behavioural changes manifest during a crisis, particularly air transport, which is generally perceived as being non-essential.

For example, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2003 reduced demand for passenger air transport in the affected regions by about 35% at the height of the crisis. Demand continued to be below business-as-usual levels six months after the epidemic had eased, resulting in an 8% annual decrease of revenue passenger kilometres. The SARS crisis also affected non-essential trips on public transport. In Taipei, there were half as many underground trips during the peak of the SARS epidemic and it took four months for passenger numbers to return pre-crisis levels.

Several other viruses emerged since the SARS outbreak that affected aviation demand including the Avian Flu outbreaks of 2005 and 2013 and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome in 2015. In these cases, demand for air travel bounced back relatively quickly. However, it is reasonable to assume that the public’s response to Covid-19 will more closely resemble the response to SARS, as the scale of the impacts and the perceived risks of contagion are much greater compared to more recent pandemics. Already, surveys of public attitudes to risk suggest that people in most countries will take time before feeling confident enough to travel again. In another survey, two out of five passengers in major aviation markets want to wait for at least six months before travelling again.

From a behavioural perspective, the speed at which air travel demand resumes may also depend on whether responses to the virus permanently change the way we travel. For example, increased health checks may help to provide a sense of security for some passengers. Alternatively, if such procedures make flying a more complicated and time-consuming mode of transport, potential air travellers could be dissuaded from flying.

The combined impact of passengers’ perceptions of danger and inconvenience on transport demand was demonstrated in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks (9/11). After 9/11 there was a large drop in demand for air transport, as business and leisure passengers reassessed both the risks and inconvenience of flying after new security precautions were introduced. Studies showed that the overall impact on air transport was long-lasting: despite bouncing back, some analysts estimate that US domestic air passenger travel was over -7% lower in the five years after the attacks than it would have been, had they not occurred.

In China, the domestic aviation market is starting to rebound as domestic travel restrictions are eased. However, the extent to which the Covid-19 crisis will affect global aviation demand in the longer term remains to be seen. Modelling by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) suggests the short-term (within 12 months) impact will be a severe drop in passengers under most scenarios.

If and when demand for passenger air transport returns to pre-crisis levels will depend on a range of factors including perception of risk, cost, convenience, and the availability of alternative transport modes, all of which affect people’s mobility decisions. Government policies (discussed below) can influence each of these factors. Concerning business travel, Covid-19 could be different from previous crises, if companies determine that replacing business trips with videoconferencing is more feasible as technologies mature.

In addition to direct demand reductions for particular modes of transport, previous crises also show that people often adopt new transport practices during and immediately following a crisis, which can sometimes become permanent, depending on a range of factors.

A clear example of modal shifts in response to a crisis came after the London terrorist attacks in July 2005, when a series of bombs exploded in three London underground trains and one bus, killing 56 people and injuring another 700.

Although the damaged underground lines reopened within weeks, the attacks had longer lasting impacts on the city’s commuting patterns. Londoners avoided underground journeys for months and partly switched to other modes of transport such as cycling. Bike retailers in London reported that sales quadrupled in the week following the attack and bike use increased by 13% from June to July. Cycling trips remained high until the end of 2005, with a 9% annual increase in registered trips compared to the previous year, whereas car, bus and underground use decreased.

Change in journey stages of selected modes and population in London 2004-2005

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Growth in journey stages of selected modes in London, 2000-2018

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For many commuters, the bombings may have acted as a catalyst for switching to active transport modes, convinced after experiencing benefits such as cost and time savings over public transport or better health. However, other factors also contributed. For example, the introduction of the congestion charge for private vehicles entering central London had contributed to a strong increase in bike use since 2003 and more than half of the respondents in a 2004 survey mentioned the charge as a key trigger for cycling more.

The availability of infrastructure was also key to keeping attracting new cyclists in the years following the bombings. For example, a growing network of dedicated ‘quietways’ and fully-protected ‘cycle superhighways’ (since 2010) has been crucial in attracting additional first-time cyclists by providing safer conditions.

It should also be noted that despite the increase in cyclists stimulated by the crisis, the overall impact on commuting patterns was relatively insignificant in terms of long-term changes to transport energy demand: bicycles still only accounted for 2.5% of all trips in London in 2018 despite the 2.6-fold increase in bike rides since 2000.

Nonetheless, the scale of the Covid-19 crisis could stimulate even larger and longer lasting effects on mobility patterns compared with crises like the London Bombings, depending on how the public perceives risk. That is, if the perceived risk of contracting Covid-19 on mass transport modes seemingly outweighs the safety risks associated with other modes, people might choose to switch transport behaviours for a longer period, a phenomenon known as ‘dread behaviour’.

Already reports are emerging of shifts to active transport modes out of necessity, as social distancing measures reduce public transport use. Cities such as New York and Philadelphia were reporting a substantial increase in cycling (the number of cyclists more than doubling in the latter) during the beginning of the pandemic, made more attractive by unusually empty streets and better air quality. The UK’s Association of Cycle Traders reported a boom in mending as people retrieve old bicycles from their sheds, while one of the largest bike suppliers in the United States ran out of stock on some of its top selling models as sales have surged. After the lockdowns are lifted, these shifts could become more permanent if commuters' risk calculus suggests such modes pose less risk than the alternatives. In Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak first emerged, since the lockdown was lifted, bike-sharing services have witnessed up to tenfold increases in ride orders compared to pre-crisis levels. 

Of course, as the perceived risks of travelling via public transport linger, people are also likely to seek out more energy intensive transport options than cycling, often for purely practical reasons. In many cities, private cars were a more dominant form of transport prior to the Covid-19 crisis and previous crises suggest car usage could spike following this crisis. For example, after 9/11, private vehicle use increased, as people sought to reduce their exposure to potential terrorist targets on mass transport. Ironically, such dread behaviour may have led to higher exposure to death by car accident.

Even in London, dread behaviour after the 2005 bombings stimulated some degree of switching from public transport to fossil-fuel powered private vehicles, in the form of motorcycles. Research suggests one of the secondary impacts of the bombings was a 7-11% increase in vehicle particulate emissions, with long-term negative impacts on Londoners’ health.

As countries begin to lift their lockdowns, it will be important to remember how people responded in previous crises and already signs are emerging that some degree of switching to more energy-intensive transport modes is likely. In one survey of consumer sentiment, 20% of people who regularly used buses, subways or trains said they no longer would, while 17% of people indicated they would use their car more due to Covid-19. Fears of Covid-19 have helped increase car sales above 2019 levels in Korea in both March and April 2020, while in Beijing, morning peak-hour traffic has recently been above normal levels as commuters opted to drive over risking public transport.

These early manifestations of dread behaviour suggest that far from ushering in the beginning of peak oil demand, behaviours in response to Covid-19 could spark a rebound in transport-related oil use when countries end their lockdowns. Governments will need to help people avoid unintended consequences that can flow from dread behaviour and more accurately assess the risks associated with their transport choices, including virus exposure, transport accidents, and the economic, environmental and health impacts of congestion.


The examples discussed above show that crises can stimulate lasting changes in mobility patterns, with both positive and negative impacts. As new mobility patterns emerge with this crisis—such as even more widespread increases in bicycle use than previous crises—building on the lessons learned in the past could help ensure sustainable transport behaviours persist. Most importantly, previous crises show that supporting policies are needed to promote sustainable behaviours and avoid negative consequences that can flow from people’s calculus of risk in the wake of a crisis. At a time when people will be feeling vulnerable, policies that increase trust in the safety of sustainable transport options are particularly important.

Infrastructure investments can be crucial for building trust in public and active transport

Investments into good quality public transport infrastructure and new and improved cycling networks can make sustainable modes of transport more attractive and safer, especially in the wake of a crisis. Support for public transport agencies to maintain infrastructure and service provision after the lockdown will be particularly crucial in this crisis, as several are experiencing significant revenue losses due to reduced ridership during the lockdown period.

For cycling, the provision of infrastructure such well delineated cycleways and quality end-of-trip facilities has been proven to be one of the best ways to increase cycling uptake by bolstering safety and convenience. Infrastructure to boost safety is especially important for increasing cycling uptake in under-represented segments of the population such as women, who perceive traffic safety differently.

Evidence from the London bombings demonstrates the need to provide infrastructure to keep cyclists safe as lockdowns are lifted and traffic volumes increase: the rise in bicycle commutes after the 2005 attacks reportedly led to an increase in cyclist casualties. London has since completed several major cycling infrastructure projects that have helped to increase cycling safety and participation, including dedicated cycling ‘super highways’ and cycle hire schemes which are helping to create a ‘critical mass’ of cyclists.

Already more than 150 cities have provided dedicated cycling and walking infrastructure in anticipation of the post-crisis surge in traffic as of late April 2020. Bogotá is opening 80 km of roads to cyclists, building on experience from car-free Sundays on most of these streets, while Lima is constructing 300 km of bike lanes within 100 days. In Paris, 650 km of cycleways are to be built, connecting the city centre with the suburbs—including temporary ‘corona bike lanes’. Oakland has converted 10% of its streets into ‘slow streets’ closed to through motor traffic, while other cities are widening sidewalks to accommodate more pedestrians in a safe way. Where feasible, converting such temporary infrastructure into more permanent structures would help to ensure positive behaviours induced by the crisis continue into the future.

Ensuring public trust in the safety of public transport will be difficult, as people will likely continue to avoid close physical contact with others. However, maintaining the quality and safety of public transport services in the post lockdown period will be crucial to ensure people do not lose faith in public transport systems in the longer term. Governments will need to ensure public transport systems have the resources to maintain reliability standards while also catering to commuters perceptions of safety, through measures to maintain a level of social distancing. This may involve increasing the frequency of services and publishing real-time updates on public transport congestion to allow for commuters to travel in relatively less crowded vehicles, for example. Other evolving practices around the world include the compulsory use of protective facemasks, sanitiser provision and more frequent cleaning of trains and buses, temperature checks at metro entrances and automatic opening of all doors at any station to prevent direct contact.

Pricing and regulatory policies can help incentivise less energy-intensive transport behaviours when the crisis ends  

When the current crisis ends, a major determinant of whether people stick with public and active transport modes over more energy-intensive transport modes will be the relative cost of different transport options. While oil prices have now dropped to an historical low, creating a stronger incentive to drive and fly, policies can help to ensure the right balance of costs and benefits as demand rebounds.

For example, after the London bombings, one reason people persisted with cycling rather than switch to cars was the congestion charge, introduced in 2003. The congestion charge, which discourages driving into central London by imposing a cost (currently GBP 11.50) on trips within certain zones, helped encourage more energy efficient commuter behaviours in two ways. First, it made public and active transport relatively more attractive on a cost per kilometre basis for commuters living within a certain distance of central London. Second, by reducing private car trips into the centre of the city, the charge helped to avoid the risk of traffic accidents, making active transport modes safer. In addition, the charge has generated around GBP 150 million in net revenue last year alone. All of these revenues have been reinvested in the city’s transport system in line with the Mayor’s transport strategy.

Similarly, pricing on-street parking can generate revenues for reinvestment in sustainable transport while disincentivising private vehicle use and reducing congestion. For example, drivers searching for parking are responsible for a third of the vehicle traffic in urban centres during peak hours—especially in areas with unpaid, or under-priced, parking.

Positive incentives for active transport modes can also drive greater uptake. In several European countries, cyclists can claim rebates for every kilometre cycled into work. For instance, in the Netherlands, where cycling rates are the highest in the world, cyclists can claim €0.19 for every kilometre cycled to work. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the French government announced a Sustainable Mobility Package, which includes up to €400 per year, tax free, for employees who can prove the use of sustainable transport modes, including car-sharing and cycling.

In the aviation sector, the absence of a price on the negative environmental externalities of air travel is one reason for the continuing low cost of air tickets, helping to drive strong demand for flights over more environmentally sustainable transport modes. Especially in markets where domestic jet fuels are not subject to carbon pricing, accelerated phase-outs of fossil fuel subsidies—such as exemptions from taxes on kerosene fuel—could help to level the playing field for less energy-intensive forms of transport. In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, some governments are now pursuing interventions that would remove cheap but energy-intensive options from travellers’ decision-making entirely. For example, the French government recently announced that bailouts for Air France would be contingent on the airline ceasing to provide domestic flights for trips that could be completed by train in under 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Regulatory instruments can also be crucial to supporting more sustainable transport behaviours. For example, vehicle speed limits and overtaking laws can significantly affect cycling safety, and importantly, perceptions of safety, by reducing ‘near misses’. In response to the Covid-19 stimulated increases in cycling, some cities are already responding with regulations designed to increase cyclist safety. Brussels, for instance, has reduced speed limits to 20 km/h in the city centre. Traffic rules prioritising cyclists and pedestrians in shared road spaces are another option, especially at crowded junctions.

Public behaviour change campaigns can work under the right conditions

During the Covid-19 crisis many jurisdictions have been running public aware campaigns, designed to encourage people to conform with lockdown laws or promote correct hand-washing techniques, for example. Similar public information campaigns encouraging more sustainable transport practices after the crisis passes may be an effective option for governments seeking to create long-term modal shifts. Campaigns may also be necessary to help inform the public to make choices based on sound analysis of risks. However, their efficacy will depend on a range of factors, from their timing (in relation to the current health crisis), the level of trust in government, and the extent to which they are partnered with other measures (described above). For example, research on one travel awareness campaign suggested 3-12% of drivers reduced their car use in response to the campaign, which was delivered alongside other measures.

Careful, user-centred design of campaigns is also crucial. Stressing the co-benefits of sustainable mobility options (such as well-being) has been an important part of successful sustainable transport campaigns in the past, and emphasising benefits such as better air quality and improved health could improve their success in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. The efficacy of public campaigns may also depend on who delivers the message and while the potential role of high-profile messengers in sustainable mobility campaigns is largely unexplored, research suggests that sustainable mobility campaigns are yet to use this behavioural lever.

Case studies from energy efficiency campaigns point to behavioural levers such as competition, community actions and public commitments to help secure long-term buy-in to activities, which might also apply to some extent when designing sustainable mobility campaigns.

Another lesson from energy conservation campaigns in the household sector is that campaigns promoting actions that are relatively easy to take are more likely to be successful. This was demonstrated during the Fukushima nuclear crisis, when Japanese households managed to achieved large and sustained cuts in electricity use in response to the government’s Setsuden campaign. Analysis has since found that the actions most likely to be taken up were those that did not require either frequent efforts or considerable discomfort.

Stimulus spending can be used to support less energy intensive transport modes

Finally, while governments are in the process of designing and rolling out stimulus programmes to reduce the economic impacts of the crisis, there is an opportunity to direct stimulus spending to the measures already discussed, particularly transport infrastructure investments, which can have positive economic spill over effects.  

In some cases, the positive economic effects of public transport investments are greater than other transport investments. For example, in the United States after the global recession of 2008-09, public transport investments reportedly produced 31% more jobs per dollar than new road construction. Analysis suggests Korea’s public transport infrastructure investments after the 2008-09 recession resulted in 138,000 jobs.

Active transport infrastructure investments could also have positive economic benefits in the wake of a crisis. Evidence suggests that bicycle parking infrastructure delivers five times higher retail spend than the same area of car parking: in New York, the implementation of separated bike lanes has increased trade at local businesses by up to 50%. The cycling sector can also create jobs across multiple industries: in Europe, cycling employed around 650,000 people in 2016 in areas such as retail, manufacturing and bicycle tourism.


During and immediately following the crisis, governments will understandably be concerned with issues of public health and wellbeing, including mitigating the economic impacts of the crisis. Pursuing measures to entrench sustainable transport behaviours could be one of the more effective ways to stimulate economic activity, support employment, and improve health outcomes. 

In addition to the short-term benefits that public and active transport could deliver—in terms of providing efficient mobility services after the lockdown and supporting economic growth—in the longer term, investments in public and active transport and active pay off in a number of ways. For example, the introduction of a bike sharing scheme in Washington DC has reduced traffic congestion by 4%, resulting in significant cuts in congestion-related CO2 emissions. Encouraging a shift away from car use might also reduce serious traffic-related accidents and the associated costs. In California, one silver lining of the Covid-19 lockdown has been a halving of traffic collisions and related injuries, saving the state $40 million per day.

The health benefits of promoting active transport are also potentially large, with positive impacts for public health budgets. For example, some estimates suggest that if every Londoner walked or cycled for 20 minutes a day, the UK’s public health system could save GBP 1.7 billion in treatment costs over the next 25 years. Others estimate that for each car driver switching to cycling for a daily commute of 5 km (one way), the health benefit from the physical activity is worth about EUR 1300 per year.

In large cities, higher active and public transport shares have  additional secondary health and economic benefits resulting from the associated reduction of air pollution. Such benefits are particularly relevant during the current crisis, as research on Covid-19 suggests that cities with higher levels of air pollution have been affected more adversely by the virus. Locking in more sustainable transport behaviours now might help to reduce the severity of health crises in future.

The Covid-19 crisis has changed already people’s transport behaviours in dramatic ways, with large reductions in aviation and public transport use and significant growth in cycling uptake. Evidence from previous crises shows that in the immediate aftermath of crisis events, transport behaviours will change, as people reassess the costs and benefits of different transport modes. Decision-making will be partly driven by people’s perceptions of risks, regardless of whether such perceptions are well founded or not. As lockdowns are lifted, policy will be crucial in determining whether mobility changes triggered by Covid-19 are positive or negative, in terms of their impacts energy use, safety and long-term environmental and health outcomes. Thankfully, governments designing sustainable transport policies for the post lockdown period can draw on experiences from previous crises to predict likely behaviours and design policies that are fit for purpose.

References
  1. Data is for trips made on public transport, walking, cycling and some micromobility and taxi services. See https://citymapper.com/cmi/about