Life

Commuting after coronavirus: what will our commutes really look like after lockdown?

1.8km queues, 17-hour journeys, and public hand sanitiser stations? Oh my!

A lot of people were left thoroughly confused when, on 13 May, Boris Johnson announced his amendments to the coronavirus lockdown guidelines. Primarily, that people should go back to work if they can’t work from home, and that they should avoid using public transport unless absolutely necessary.

Why? Well, because a lot of us rely on public transport to get to work – particularly if we work in one of the UK’s cities.

According to Transport for London (TfL) stats, some 1.35 billion people use the London Underground every single year, with over 50% of city-dwellers commuting by bus, train, or tube.

Outside of London, things are little different. In fact, while cars are a more popular means of getting to work, about a quarter of commutes in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool are made using public transport.

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So, how is this going to work?

TfL says it can only manage up to 15% of normal passenger levels and still maintain social distancing. Using this as a launchpad, The Guardian has calculated that the queues alone to access stations could stretch back to as far as two stations away.

Think about it: standing two metres apart, 40 people would fill 80 metres of pavement. So, if everyone tried to resume their morning commute as normal, there would be roughly “909 people waiting outside Clapham North station”, with a 1.8km queue to boot.

This spells trouble for many a commuter. Indeed, as Sarah Biddlecombe notes: “My usual commute involves queuing to get into either Brixton or Clapham South tube, followed by queuing on the platform. And, after watching six or eight packed trains go by, I eventually squash myself into a rammed carriage.

“It usually takes around an hour, and this would easily double if I attempted to rely on a bus. Google Maps tells me it’s almost a two hour walk from my flat to the office, which doesn’t sound so appealing when you consider the fact it would wind up a four hour round trip!”

If everyone tried to resume their morning commute as normal, there would be roughly “909 people waiting outside Clapham North station”.

Jazmin Kopotsha adds: “I hate the Tube, so having another reason to avoid going underground hasn’t affected that non-aspect of my commute to work. That said, I had half expected to feel a little bit easier about travelling on the Tube under the naïve assumption that a crisis like this would dramatically lessen the number of people travelling on the Victoria and Northern Lines. But the recent photos of people commuting to work on packed trains have only heightened my anxieties.

“The bus, which is usually my saviour, also now feels off limits because I’m not sure I’ll feel entirely comfortable being on public transport for a while. So that leaves me with walking. A two hour and nine-minute walk through south London, across London Bridge and into Holborn to get to my office each day. I played with my route on Google Maps to try and at least take me through some nice parks but that adds a good 20-30 minutes to my journey.

“And no, before you ask, I don’t have a bike and am too terrified of the London roads to try it.”

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What else is being done to ease the pressure?

As outlined in the Railway Gazette, a list of the 20 busiest stations has been published to help people avoid them where possible. One-way and queuing systems have already been introduced at some stations to help keep passengers apart, with signs on escalators asking people to stand six steps apart and imposing a limit of four people per lift.

On top of that, more than 500 hand sanitisers have been installed in London Underground ticket halls, with platform areas, bus stations and selected railway and light rail stations to follow. Commuters have, likewise, been advised to try and avoid travelling at peak times (05.45 - 08.15 and 16.00 - 17.30), and they’ve been asked to leave at least a seat between themselves and others.

On top of this, the government is pushing people to walk or cycle to work wherever possible, too.

Cycling rage: why do Londoners hate cyclists so much?
The government is urging people to avoid public transport, and cycle wherever they can.

Still, though, we foresee problems with this plan. Not least of all for those who commute into their city jobs from the suburbs.

“In January, I moved out of London and into Lewes, a small town close to Brighton,” shares Megan Murray. “My commutes were definitely trickier than they had been when I’d been living in Dalston and could get a 40 minute bus or take an hour’s walk to work.

“For those two months before lockdown started I was getting the 6.30am train for a 9am start in Zone One, spending two hours or more on a train both morning and night. Think that’s bad? Well, you can imagine my options for getting to work now. If I fancy avoiding the trains and walking, as advised, I’m looking at a commute that lasts well over 17 hours. Or, if I want to cycle, it’s about four hours and 50 minutes by bike.”

This writer, who lives in Surrey, has also looked up her new commute, only to find that a one-way walk to the office clocks in at just shy of seven hours. Cycling would take me around two hours… but it would also require me, the same knock-kneed schoolgirl who failed her Cycling Proficiency, to pedal her way to work down a busy motorway. Hmm.

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So, what about walking and cycling?

Even those who live within cycling or walking distance of their offices have admitted that they’re worried about what the future holds.

Lucy Robson, who notes that her commute would take just under 60 minutes if she walked to work, says that the two hour round trip will be better for her overall health, but that it will challenge her “already poor” morning skills.

And Hollie Richardson, who self-identifies as “that annoying person who can cycle from my flat to the office in under half an hour”, points out: “With more people turning to cycling over the coming months, there’s going to be more bikes on the road, which means it’s going to become more dangerous.

“TfL really needs to respond with improving the city’s infrastructure ASAP,” she adds. “They are way behind other countries on this, so really need to get a move on!”

With this in mind, the Bicycle Association (BA) has approached the government with a number of proposals, including pop-up bike lanes, secure cycle parking, a zero VAT “holiday” for all bikes, refresher cycling courses for adults, e-bikes and cycle repairs, and subsidies for repairs.

They have also suggested that the government introduce a £250 grant for anyone buying an e-bike, as well as a £50 bike repair voucher as has been introduced in France.

We guess we’ll have to see if Johnson makes good on his promise of a “golden age for cycling”, then, won’t we?

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