Sharon Kindleysides on COVID-19 and transport
Sharon Kindleysides is currently based in the UK, and is currently a freelance consultant in the ITS / Smart Cities / CAV space, including helping start-ups and advising a number of Australian organisations who want to spread their wings into the UK and Europe and vice-versa. She is also the ITS-coordinator for the Cities Forum, industry groups looking to spread Smart Cities best practice globally.
Prior to this Sharon was the ITS Director at the NSW Government’s Roads and Maritime Services department, and long-time CEO of Kapsch TrafficCom UK. And after quite some time back in the UK, Sharon is currently exploring ways in which she might again work in Australia.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sharon’s is the first interview in this series that is at least a little bit personally astonished about the times we find ourselves in.
What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?
I never actually thought I would live through an apocalypse. In my imagination, I presumed that if I had to do so, I would be battling the undead, looking like Lara Croft and have Chris Hemsworth in tow as a cute-but-dumb sidekick with a big hammer. Instead, I am having to cut my own hair and negotiating with a 13 year old who uses up every last byte of bandwidth simultaneously playing Fortnite, streaming Netflix and having extremely loud video calls narrating blow for blow the game he is playing whilst I try to keep a Zoom connection remotely stable.
Life is rather surreal at times, but things do seem to have become “normal” rather quickly and I do sometimes forget that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. The challenges caused by the COVID crisis have affected all aspects of life, during the initial couple of weeks new ways of doing things became normal. Many social forums emerged up with people asking or offering help and notes being popped through doors of entire streets with offers of fetching shopping or medications.
The practicalities of getting groceries for people who have been told to shield themselves have now settled down and the initial shortages of everyday household items following the great toilet-roll-sell-out of 2020 seem to have been overcome. Apparently in the first week or so of the crisis, shops sold around 7 weeks’ worth of stock of some items putting a huge stress on the logistics and wholesale networks. This was followed by a Chinese whisper approaches to locating items like flour and yeast; and an outbreak of recipes for banana bread and sour-dough starters appearing on social media.
The crisis has identified or exaggerated many divides in society. Rich, poor, old, young – those with a good internet connection and mobile phone signal, and those without. The world wasn’t expecting a huge number of people to have to work from home without warning and many people simply don’t have the space or even a desk to do so and are having to work in less than ideal physical environments, having to try to buy an emergency flat-pack desk online, creating a makeshift desk from ironing boards to or taking shifts at the kitchen table – if there is one, with other family members or housemates.
Vast numbers of staff were at a disadvantage from day one of the lockdown by the practicalities of needing a desk. Add to this the fact that the nation’s children are now at home requiring supervision, snacks, and entertainment and the mental stresses and strains of simply coping with the unknown; it is hardly surprising that brain fog, low productivity, anxiety and stress are widespread.
What changes would you like to see in the transport sector when the world rights itself post-pandemic?
The pandemic has shown how important it is to keep public transport running, virtually at any cost as can be seen in the subsidies given to transport operators and cities to keep key routes running by rail, air and water. These investments have shown that it is OK for the nation to subsidise routes which might otherwise not be profitable but which play a vital role in keeping the country connected. In the post-COVID world I hope that this attitude will continue to ensure that vital routes serving small populations are as important as the Clapham Omnibus.
With regard to private car travel, both a carrot and a stick approach are going to be required to encourage drivers to leave the presumed safety of their own car and use public transport again quickly. Whilst you are less likely to catch COVID 19 alone in a private vehicle, the inherent risks of car travel to both the driver and the environment may well make it the riskier option than taking public transport.
Based on a statistical analysis (Population-level COVID-19 mortality risk for non-elderly individuals overall and for non-elderly individuals without underlying diseases in pandemic epicenters) it has been calculated that, ‘If you live in Cambridge and are under the age of 65, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is slightly lower than the risk of dying if you commute to London daily by car’. Not to mention the health risk from walking on the streets of a newly heavily-polluted city.
If I were in charge of post-CV19 transport, I would introduce a campaign of public awareness before the lockdown is fully lifted to demonstrate the safety precautions that are in place on public transport and also to highlight the environmental damage that returning to the car will bring. This campaign will be as much about driver behaviour as information and may well have to be backed up with nationwide congestion charges and extended clean air zones to give the campaign some bite.
What it should not do, at least at the start, is be used as an agenda to push EV uptake, it is best to reduce vehicles on the road full-stop not further exacerbate the transport poverty divide.
And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?
I saw a reference to Carmageddon over the last few days and I believe that the most likely impact is that there will be a huge rise in the use of private vehicles to the detriment of public transport use.
There is an argument that people will work more flexibly and no-doubt some will, but to generalise hugely, this view does seem to stem from older people, with reasonable sized houses and a stable home life in the ‘burbs. Many people’s social interactions revolve around their workmates; there may have practical difficulties in working from home, or may live alone and would simply would like to see fellow humans regularly for some people there are as many reasons for wanting to work amongst people as there are reasons for others to want to work from home.
Figures suggesting that public transport capacity would need to be reduced by 90% to make it safe would be catastrophic. A peak time train, a 16-carriage commuter train can officially carry around 1900 people, but they are often massively overcrowded and may have hundreds more. Department for Transport figures indicate that around 577,000 commuters arrive in London every day during peak hours, even if these travellers all have access to a private vehicle that they are able to use to commute, London cannot cope with and extra 520,000 of cars arriving every day!
Added to this, public transport providers around the world have already experienced an unimaginable drop in ridership. Transport for London saw Tube journeys fall by 95% and journeys on buses fall by 85% at the lowest point and furloughed 7,000 staff and causing them to ask the Government for a GBP 1.6 billion bailout. With a permanent reduction in public transport use, such levels of subsidy would need to continue until a vaccine or other way of combating the virus is found.
It is not all doom and gloom, there is a glimmer of hope, with the UK’s lockdown easing slightly hopefully I will soon be able to head off to the Winchester, where you will find me with a nice, cold pint waiting for everything to blow over …