Vivid Thoughts: The Journey Back Will Be Quicker by Car Than by Transit

While we are still in the midst of the pandemic it seems we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. We all hope we will exit into sunlight, but what exactly will the countryside look like? It will be familiar, but there will be differences. However, I increasingly wonder if where we are heading was our destination all along, and we are just going to arrive a lot earlier.

While the digital revolution of the last 20 years has altered our lives beyond recognition, there was still a long way to go. The pandemic has given new momentum to working from home, remote conversations (business and personal), online shopping, and at home entertainment (be it movies, watching sport, live music, exercise, etc.). These all mean we don’t need to travel as much if we don’t want to, especially by motorized modes, and is leading to the view that we are now looking at a future of “localism” instead of “globalism”.

Of course, the jury is still out on what exactly happens next, but in a new age of “localism”, especially in urban areas with big commute flows from the suburbs, the outlook for mass transit doesn’t look good. The lower levels of demand simply will not support current levels of service, but as they are cut, it creates a negative cycle of lower supply, leading in turn to lower demand, and so into a spiral of decline.

In lower density rural and suburban areas, where the car carries more and transit carries less, the picture is less clear. In some circumstances, one can even imagine more travel by car rather than less – as car sharing and trip chaining become more problematic in a world without the regularity of a core ‘9 to 5’ movement of people, and where the limited transit services that are available are further reduced.

At a first glance, this might look like bad news for the environment. However, I am also detecting signs that other ongoing social changes may be accelerating, and that these should mitigate the impact. Last year, we asked a bunch of toll road users what they thought about discounts for electric vehicles. We got a resounding NO. It was unfair and simply rewarded the rich. We did the same recently, albeit with a smaller sample, and got a very different response. YES, that is the sort of behaviour we should apparently be rewarding. Perhaps, people have finally realized that the cheapest for them in the short term is not always the cheapest for them, as part of a global society, in the long term.

What is more, with less overall travel, and more local trips on foot or bicycle, we should hopefully still be looking at less overall car miles, even if there are increases in some locations.

On a final note, we also recently asked people about paying to use toll roads. It seems that people may be putting an even higher value on their time (perhaps because we have all been reminded that there are more important things than money). Prior to the pandemic, using a toll road was an option that many commuters selected once or twice a week. While a reduced number of commutes per week may suggest lower traffic, with higher values of time, they may still use that toll the same number of times, as they place a greater focus on what really matters (which does not include sitting in a car).

Shakespeare called the future the undiscovered country. What we may discover about the country at the end of the tunnel is that it is the future we were heading to anyway, and it has just arrived a bit earlier. Either way, it will probably be quicker by clean car rather than by mass transit.


Philip Bates


Transport & Logistics


Transaction Advisory