The Impact of COVID-19 on Transport in Manchester

In times when we have collaborated more closely than before yet never been physically further apart, or when we grew to realise almost everything could get delivered to your doorstep, transport has undergone a significant paradigm shift to keep up with the “new normal” we have nosedived into. Seven months in from initial response measures and now in the midst of a resurgent second wave, how has Manchester travelled through the COVID-19 pandemic to date?

In the later weeks of March 2020 following lockdown directives, most private and public transport experienced significant reductions in patronage. Nationwide travel by car averaged as low as 33% throughout the weekday when compared to the equivalent days in the first week of February 2020[1]. The public transport sector was hit the hardest, with National Rail reporting at its lowest point 4% of patronage compared to an equivalent week in 2019, attributed to Government instructions to work from home where possible and avoid travel by public transport unless for essential journeys.

The public was handed a lifeline with outdoor exercise allowed once a day, which did not go unappreciated – journeys made by cycle doubled and continued to skyrocket with the welcome improved weather. Over the early May bank holiday weekend, cycle journeys hit an impressive high of 384% compared to an equivalent Saturday in the first week of March. Whilst the public continued to stay at home, food and non-store retailing unsurprisingly saw strong increases in volume sales throughout lockdown (up 150% in May 2020 compared to February 2020 sales[2]), whereas non-essential retailing struggled.

This, in turn, led to an increase in goods vehicles on the highway network as vulnerable groups and those worried about community transmission in public spaces turned to e-commerce to fulfil their food shopping and general needs. By the end of May 2020, although travel by all motor vehicle traffic was still averaging 66% when compared to an equivalent day in February 2020, Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) trips had already recovered to 86% compared to an equivalent day in February 2020. HGV trips not exceeding its patterns earlier in the year could also have been caused by the mass closures of non-essential and high street shops, therefore greatly reducing the need for shops to be regularly stocked to their typical capacity.

On a local scale, true to the Manchester Bee ethic, the city kept busy throughout. Not everyone had the privilege of staying at home, for about 41% of people in employment in Manchester work in the manufacturing, construction, distribution, hotels and restaurants, transport and communication sectors of the economy[3]. When lockdown restrictions were lifted in June 2020 and replaced with social distancing measures, the city began to welcome Mancunians back to work, live, and spend in order to keep the city moving. To help fellow Mancunians travel safely, Manchester City Council widened footpaths all around town to make sure pedestrians can always keep the recommended 2 metres apart. Parts of Deansgate were pedestrianised and made way for better walking and cycling environments. Workplaces began to stagger arrival times and travel patterns so whilst travel resumed, the degree of care and consideration taken into minimising congestion increased as people continued to look out for one another.

The thought of being pressed up against strangers’ backs on the Metrolink during peak travel hours seemed so foreign, when did we ever get used to it and accept that as our ‘normal’? For many, personal comfort whilst travelling was best guaranteed by private car – evidenced by car travel returning to 85% by the end of July 2020, compared to an equivalent day earlier in the year. Unfortunately, public transport continued to struggle, with travel by rail and buses still hovering at 29%-35% of patronage compared to an equivalent day earlier in the year in the same time period.

Another highlight in the third quarter of the year occurred when the Government introduced additional easing of measures pertaining to pubs, restaurants, gyms and cinemas etc. Businesses adapted to safely accommodate customers once again, people flocked back to the high street, schools were reopened, and university students were welcomed back on campus for the start of the academic year, signalling an optimistic return to the old “normal” way of life. However, alternative means of transport (walk, cycle, car) were strongly recommended in place of public transport.

As much as we tried to enjoy this newfound freedom with a sensible degree of responsibility, COVID-19 had edged out yet again. Greater Manchester was soon subject to local lockdown restrictions, and the Government made a U-turn on its guidance back to encouraging home working where possible, introducing a curfew for hospitality businesses, and more social contact restrictions. Most recently, the Government brought a new three-tier restriction into force nationwide, categorising areas of the country based on their local rate of infection. Since then, Greater Manchester leaders have been relentlessly negotiating with the Government to obtain a balance between implementing measures to curb the spread of the virus and ensuring financial support for Mancunians whose livelihoods will undoubtedly be impacted in the process. The situation remains dynamic with no set “end date” of restrictions in sight, but it is increasingly likely that this would pre-empt a whole year of living in the now dreaded and overused “new normal”.

Moving forward, it is imperative not to forget the amount of progress made during the earlier months of the pandemic. Manchester and the nation were shown a glimpse of what the future of transport could be if we revisited the drawing board and revaluate how we utilise space within our towns and cities. There is an imminent risk of reverting to a private car-based recovery as the number of journeys taken continue to increase[4], and the bubble of hype around cycling may burst as the days go colder and the weather takes a toll on a nation still not out of the woods from a dangerous pandemic. Substantial and consistent emphasis should be directed to providing safe and accessible infrastructure and facilities to preserve and grow the uptake of active travel; but, it is also equally important to gather thoughts on why people travelled the way they did, and how to retain their interest in the long term.

[1] Department for Transport, 2020. Transport Use During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/transport-use-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic [Accessed 27 September 2020].

[2] Office for National Statistics. 2020. Retail Sales, Great Britain: August 2020. [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/retailindustry/bulletins/retailsales/august2020#retail-sectors-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic [Accessed 27 September 2020].

[3] Manchester City Council, 2020. Manchester COVID-19 Local Prevention and Response Plan. pp.11-12.

[4] Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation. 2020. Sustainable Travel Focus Urged as Schools Resume. [online] Available at: https://www.ciht.org.uk/news/sustainable-travel-focus-urged-as-schools-resume/ [Accessed 28 September 2020].