Interview with Susan Claris, Arup and Living Streets

Susan Claris is a transport planner at Arup and VP of the charity Living Streets. In a recent interview she shared with me her views on how the pandemic may change our travel behaviours for the better.

‘Change on a scale that wasn’t imaginable’

Having worked in transport for nearly 40 years now, the last year and a half has seen the most change I’ve ever seen in peoples’ travel habits.

These have been the same for years. There’s data from the National Travel Survey going back to the 1970s showing that people have a ‘travel budget’ of about one hour a day. What’s happened over that time is they’ve just travelled further in that hour.

If you’d said to me in 2019 that we’re all going to be working from home, I wouldn’t have thought it possible. It’s a change on a scale that wasn’t imaginable.

People weren’t travelling to work, which freed up additional time to do things that they couldn’t previously do. This forced change has made us realize that we are more capable of adapting than has previously been thought possible.

‘A glimpse of a very different future’

All of a sudden, people were given a glimpse of a very different future. We’ve had this experiment where many of us have lived a different life. Yes, it worked better for some people than others, but it worked.

The percentage of people who are now thinking about a job change is high. Because they’ve had time to pause and reflect upon what they’re doing.

Maybe their life priorities have changed, as they’ve got used to a new way of working. It’s given people the opportunity to reset – to think about what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

‘It became a very positive experience’

Streets were not so heavily trafficked during lockdown – meaning that the air quality and noise pollution was very different.

It gave people a real insight into a way of living that they never thought they would see. It’s not to say that everybody could work from home – I realize I’m talking about a subset. But for that subset, it became a very positive experience.

The downside is that it served to increase existing inequalities. People with office based jobs could work from home, but for those that couldn’t, it was a very different picture.

An outcome of Covid overall is that it’s increased existing inequalities.

‘People now have an incredible freedom’

At Arup we introduced a global policy called ‘Work Unbound’. It’s expected that you are at your place of work for two days a week. The rest of the time you work it out for yourself. So if you prefer to work on a Saturday rather than a Tuesday, that’s fine.

As a company we’ve carried on functioning – there’s just been a different way of doing things. That’s been a massive shift for us – as previously we were largely five days in the office. People now have incredible freedom to work flexibly, according to their personal circumstances.

And we used to do a lot of business travel – taking the view that the face-to-face element was really important. After 18 months of not meeting, some travel is coming back, but in a very limited way.

I’ve enjoyed not flying. Now the choice is whether we carry on doing things in this different way.

‘People were forced into trying something different’

Covid’s been a massive accelerator for some local authorities wanting to encourage walking and cycling. We’ve seen many temporary measures put in place. Different imperatives, such as widening footways and putting in cycle lanes.

The pace and scale of change has been absolutely huge. In Milan, for example, they made as many changes in two weeks as they had done in the past 10 years.

Initially it was out of necessity. In the early days of lockdown we were only allowed out once a day for exercise, so people walked and cycled, to stay close to home.

And then people found that walking is not as bad as they thought it would be, or actually found it really pleasant. Particularly because they didn’t have the hostility of lots of vehicles.

People were forced into trying something different and found it to be a positive experience.

‘What changes transport is the context in which it operates’

The future of transport is nearly always linked to a future technology. For example, people are currently talking about autonomous vehicles and hyperloops.

But if you look back at transport over the decades, not much has really changed. A bicycle is still a bicycle, a car is still a car.  There hasn’t been anything really new in terms of modes of transport.

What changes transport is the context in which it operates. So in the past it’s been things like the Internet or smartphones. And now, it’s the pandemic.

The current interest in transport is tied to localism and the idea of 20 minute cities. Where you can meet all your daily needs in your local neighbourhood – walking or cycling within a 20 minute radius.

This idea isn’t new, it goes back to the ‘new towns’, like Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes. Or the ‘garden village movement’ – places like Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. These were all based upon similar principles.

We’ve returned to this concept because that’s how people have been living during the pandemic. And people have seen the benefits.

It’s a virtuous circle – as people start living more in their local neighbourhood, the facilities get better, so they use it more. This is the really important aspect of social integration that comes from walking and cycling.

‘More joined-up thinking between housing and transport’

We’ve seen an absolutely profound change in terms of almost everything we do – how we work, the food we eat, our exercise levels.

But it’s going to take a long time to see what this actually means in terms of people’s travel habits. The difficulty is that transport policy has sat in silos. I hope that one of the outcomes of the last 18 months will be more joined-up policy.

There’s been talk about cross-sector benefits for years. But there’s not enough shared decision making between say, education and transport, health and transport, land use and transport.

Given the inevitable emphasis on health during the pandemic, I hope there will be some more joined-up thinking between housing and transport.

‘People will want to return to travel’

To reduce travel and increase decarbonisation, our approach has long been to ‘Avoid – Shift – Improve’.

Firstly, you try and avoid the need for a journey. If it can’t be avoided, you shift to a more sustainable mode, such as walking, cycling, or public transport. Then last is improve. For example, upgrading a vehicle fleet to make it more efficient.

During lockdown we have seen that we can avoid the need to travel. But for many people, this wasn’t a wholly attractive way to live. People will want to return to travel – how and where remains to be seen.

Many people found that the UK has a lot to offer in terms of tourism and holidays. They’ve realised that they don’t need to fly halfway around the world. But I think this sort of behaviour will creep back.

‘People still don’t understand climate change’

The pandemic caused a very direct change in people’s personal lives. And for some that has been favourable – with less commuting, walking the kids to school, enjoying their local area. It’s been a real positive.

But in terms of the environment and climate change, it’s not fed through. People still don’t understand climate change. The majority fail to see their individual actions as being relevant to, or having any impact upon, climate change.

There’s a complete disconnect. As long as they recycle their rubbish or drive an electric vehicle, they believe it’s all they need to do.

We’ve experienced extreme localism during lockdown. But because climate change is seen as a global crisis, people don’t have that same relationship with it.

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