Transport was always an equalities issue, Covid-19 has made that even clearer – By Jen Thornton

Wealthier – and whiter – neighbourhoods in towns and cities all over the world have better access to public transport. This is likely a consequence of many of the decision makers being the people who live in these areas. They think of solutions to problems faced by residents who are their immediate neighbours and forget those living in less wealthy and less white neighbourhoods.

Despite this better access to public transport, wealthier people are also more likely to own a car.

People living in areas already disadvantaged in terms of access to public transport therefore become doubly disadvantaged when they don’t have an alternative. Played out all over the country is the contrast between one person choosing to drive to work instead of waiting ten minutes for a bus, while their counterpart on the other side of town will have to wait 30 minutes for a bus because they have no alternative.

As a consequence, travel takes longer, involves more planning and is more likely to be at the mercy of traffic and service fluctuations. All of which adds up to our already disadvantaged neighbourhood residents spending longer commuting (thereby reducing their leisure time) and doing it on crowded buses and trains out of necessity.

All this was true before the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis has thrown into sharp relief the difference between the people who already live in well-connected neighbourhoods but are able to retreat to the safety of home working and those already disadvantaged who are less likely to have the kind of jobs you can do from home.

In the first weeks of the lockdown, photographs emerged on social media of still-packed London Underground trains. While many were quick to criticise the people on the trains, in fact large numbers of people were travelling because they had no choice. They had to get to work because they couldn’t work from home, and the only way they could get there was on public transport.

Calls to shut construction sites in the capital grew, and services were restored earlier in the morning, which created a longer rush hour and reduced congestion. The reality, of course, for these passengers was that they had to travel to work or else be unable to pay their rent and feed their families.

Transport workers have also emerged as part of the new front line during the pandemic. Bus and train drivers; platform and ticketing staff; freight and delivery operators, and many more are all vital to keep the country moving. A large number of these frontline workers are also part of the groups already affected by lower wealth, and many – particularly in cities – are from BAME backgrounds.

The government and wider society was quick to praise these front-line workers but not to protect them sufficiently from the potential harms of the coronavirus. Bus drivers, who have face-to-face contact with passengers as they board, have been seriously affected, with Transport for London reporting the death of 29 bus drivers to date(https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-52752022). The story of Belly Mujinga (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-52938155) will also be familiar to many. Belly was a railway worker whose job at London Victoria involved speaking to customers face-to-face on the station concourse. As she had an underlying respiratory condition, it’s reported that Belly had asked her employer to be moved away from a passenger-facing role but they had refused her request. Sadly Belly contracted Covid-19 and died in April.

Transport workers have expressed their pride at being key workers and part of the response to the Covid-19 crisis but they have lacked the safety measures that should have been in place to protect them.

As we move forward out of the crisis, it’s important that public transport continues to serve those who most need it, and that priority of resources is given to buses and trains in areas where a higher percentage of people have no alternative. Transport unions will also continue to fight for worker and passenger safety to be the primary consideration as public transport services slowly re-open as part of the lifting of lockdown measures.

As restrictions are eased, the number of people travelling and commuting will begin to go up, but this must happen slowly and safely. Rail operators have said that in order for passengers to be socially distanced, capacity will be at 10-15% of normal levels.

For that reason, those who don’t need to be on public transport for all or part of their journey should be encouraged and facilitated to travel by other means. In cities, it’s neither advisable or realistic to encourage commuting by car, so provision must be made for safe and easy walking and cycling.

Local and devolved authorities have already begun this work right across the country, with road lanes being redesigned into segregated cycle paths and pavements widened.

These developments are extremely beneficial to both travellers and the populations living near to major roads. Those walking and cycling will likely see their fitness improve, and people who’ve been living, working and playing next to congested roads will benefit from better air quality.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the less wealthy and less white neighbourhoods that are more likely to live next to major roads, so improving air quality is also an issue of equality and fairness. 

Transport is one of the sectors where we have a unique opportunity to create a new normal as we come out of the pandemic, but this can only be achieved if decision makers at all levels commit to maintaining positive changes and going further to make it even easier for people to travel in a healthy and sustainable way.


Jen Thornton is a trade unionist, campaigner and communicator who works in transport policy

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