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Beyond Covid – What does the future of public transport hold?

John Aloy, O2’s Head of Key Accounts, Public Sector, considers the role of public transport in the workplace of the future.

With the gradual lifting of Covid restrictions, and with both the Prime Minister and Chancellor hinting that we should consider returning to our city centres, I’ve been thinking about the role that public transport needs to play.

For me, there are a number of key questions that need to be addressed before public transport uptake can return to its pre-2020 level:

  • What can we do to give the public the confidence they need to get back onto our trains, buses and tube lines?
  • What might encourage people out of their cars and back onto public transport?
  • How will our attitude to public transport change in the future?
  • What might the transport network of the future look like?

Confidence through data

Confidence is about more than simply being told that public transport is safe again. It’s about being able to access accurate, relevant data that will help every one of us to make a personal, informed decision.

The starting point is making more information available about the journey you’re about to make. What will the capacity of your bus, train or tube be at the time you travel? Will you be squeezed tight with standing room only in every carriage, or free to sit or stand at a safe distance from your fellow passengers?

Where does that knowledge come from? Well, the technology that can deliver that data is already in place. Sensors at stations, and on trains and buses, already measure the numbers of people travelling, as well as the number of vacant seats. That same technology can be used to monitor and report on passenger flow through a station, bottleneck locations at entry and exit points, and even mask compliance. To date, this anonymised and aggregated data has tended to be retained by the network operators, and there is certainly an opportunity to share more of it with passengers themselves. It could help the public to make informed decisions about their individual travel plans.

Data focused on passenger numbers and capacity is important, but other data is available that could raise people’s confidence in public transport safety.

Valuing our time

Confidence around safe travel is only one issue that needs to be addressed. The events of the last 12 months have demonstrated how much we’ve undervalued our own time in the past. For example, the time we once spent commuting, can now be spent with our families.

From now on, any journey we make needs to deliver value for us. I believe people will be less tolerant of wasted journeys, travel delays, or in particular travelling to meetings, which many feel they’ve been managing perfectly effectively and efficiently from home. If we’re going to get people back onto buses and trains, we need to ensure that their journeys are both necessary, and delivering value for the time they consume. All of which needs to be delivered in an enjoyable environment.


Of course the single biggest contributor to passenger confidence will come from the continuing success of the vaccine programme. Whatever your views about the way the UK has responded to the pandemic, the vaccine programme has been an undoubted success due to being entirely data-led with technology at its heart.

The speed of the rollout has been little short of breathtaking. Back in December, O2 had initial discussions with the NHS about developing a proof of concept involving a dozen sites for a potential vaccination programme. Within days, the first vaccine was approved, and the project escalated from a dozen to 75 sites within the first week, and to 250 by the end of December. Even that figure was dwarfed by over 1800 sites that are now being rolled out, a project that we would normally expect to take more than a year to implement.

As the vaccine programme continues at pace, people will start to feel at ease travelling in close proximity to others once more.

The future of the workplace

With the use of technology to provide better data for passengers to make informed choices, along with the continued success of the vaccination programme, can we expect confidence to return and passenger journeys to return to normal?

I believe that there are two important considerations here. The first is to question whether returning transport to the way it used to be is even a desirable aim. Should we not take this as an opportunity to reset how we consider transport in society should work, and develop infrastructure where it’s actually needed rather than because it’s always been there?

The second is to recognise that we have a chance for the transport recovery to be green and sustainable, not simply to reopen and continue where we left off. What must we change to make transport and travel to work sustainable going forward?

In January, O2 surveyed more than 2000 UK adult workers, across a range of business sectors, to establish how their needs and expectations have changed as a result of the pandemic. The result is ‘Creating a dynamic workforce’, an O2 report published this month, that considers where, how and when people want to be able to work, as well as what people expect from work in 2021 and beyond. You can download your copy here.

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