Changes in travel? A review of research on transport during the COVID-19 pandemic

GCHU Intern and BA Economics and Management student Conrad Tuckey writes on the radical effect of COVID-19 on travel behaviour across the globe.

Conrad Tuckey

BA (Hons) Economics & Management student, University of Oxford

Email: [email protected]

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a radical effect on travel behaviour across the globe, with global public transport passenger demand by a maximum around 80% to 90%, and struggling to recover to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020. The perception of public transport as unsanitary, related to fears of infection, was recognised as the most significant factor in the 25 peer-reviewed research papers that considered travel behaviour during the pandemic, which forms the basis of evidence in my scoping review of recent research. The post-pandemic stability of these changes vary across forms of transport. The increase in personal vehicle usage is projected to continue, with many car drivers planning to continue as before. The shift to cycling, however, has been unstable, increasing by 300% in the UK during the first lockdown, before dropping off to 200% in June 2020. Despite the overall decrease in public transport usage, travel demand is expected to continue increasing globally, with levels of traffic and pollution already recovering and exceeding pre-pandemic levels.  

Except for a study in Latin America and another in Africa, the research reviewed focused Europe, North America, and Asia. Although both studies considering regions outside of these areas also identified a significant decrease in public transport usage, these effects were found to be more moderate than headlining figures, due to factors such as the prevalence of informal employment. There is also a great level of variability in transport usage within regions that are well researched. For example, one study found that the share of all travel modes, except walking, decreased in the Netherlands, contrary to other European countries. The Netherlands is known for its success in promoting cycling as a popular means of transport, and yet cycling here decreased during the pandemic. Current studies are limited in their consideration of how and why the pandemic has influenced the travel behaviour of demographic groups differently, with inconsistent findings from the existing research. Although one study found that sociodemographic factors were not statistically significant, ten found that various factors such as age, income, and gender were significant although there is little consistency in which of these factors are deemed important, other than higher income being correlated with lower public transport usage. Clearly, there remains a large gap in our understanding of why travel behaviour has changed over the course of the pandemic. 

Another problem with the existing literature is that the indication that anxiety over the coronavirus is a major factor in changing travel behaviour seems to have resulted in an implicit assumption that the problem will only persist in the short-term. This gap in the literature is particularly problematic as studies have consistently found the recovery of public transport usage to be slower than expected, indicating the potential of related issues to persist in the medium and long term. This assumption is also reflected in that only one of the reviewed studies considering solutions to decreased public transport usage went beyond short-term government policies related to preventing the spread of covid on public transport. The perception of public transport as unclean or ‘unhealthy’ goes beyond coronavirus. In this context, future research might develop existing studies on medium- and long-term determinants of travel behaviour, and relate these to the effects on transport of the pandemic.

To conclude, over the course of the pandemic there has been a dramatic shift in travel behaviour with many public transport users switching to personal vehicles or active travel to avoid the risk of infection. Although this shift has partly reverted as lockdowns ease, it is apparent that the situation will not return exactly to the pre-pandemic context. Unfortunately, there remains limited understanding of how and why travel behaviour is changing as the pandemic evolves.