Back to work: ‘capacity of transport network will be down by 90%’

The enormity of the challenge of getting the UK back to work was laid bare on Saturday, as the government acknowledged that the capacity of Britain’s transport network will be reduced by 90%.

The transport minister, Grant Shapps, said at the daily Downing Street press briefing that even if a full public transport service is restored, the government’s two-metre physical distancing rule will mean 10% of the usual number of passengers will be able to travel.

As the government scrambles to “get Britain moving again” without overcrowding the transport network, Shapps called for more people to continue an emerging green revolution by taking to their bikes. Figures show that in some places there has been a 70% rise in the number of people using bicycles for exercise or travel, he said.

“Even when every train, bus, and tram is fully restored to service, this will not be enough,” Shapps warned. “Social distancing measures mean that everyone who travels will need to contribute to meeting this capacity challenge. Changing our behaviour is the single biggest thing that’s beaten back this virus.”

His announcement came as the UK’s coronavirus death toll rose to 31,587 – an increase of 346 in 24 hours. Meanwhile, figures presented by deputy chief medical officer, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, revealed that while bus, Tube and rail travel remain down there has been a “gradual increase” in motor usage.

Van-Tam said it was a “difficult trend to interpret” but that it “may reflect that some people are now returning to work who made the decision to stop at the beginning of the lockdown but were perhaps never obligated by the guidance to stop”.

Shapps urged the public to travel only when necessary and help prioritise essential workers. “Preventing overcrowding, which could lead to a second spike and more deaths, will be the responsibility of each and every one of us,” he said.

The transport secretary unveiled a £2bn package “to put cycling and walking at the heart of our transport policy” and said a national cycling plan would be published in early June to help double cycling and increase walking by 2025. Among the measures proposed are pop-up bike lanes and wider pavements, as well as cycle and bus-only streets.

A trial of e-scootersdue to take place next year will also be brought forward to next month. Initially set to take place in four local authorities, the trial will be extended to “every region in the country who wants them in a bid to get e-scooter rental schemes up and running in cities as fast as possible”.

Electric scooters – which can travel at up to 15.5mph – are banned currently on roads and pavements in the UK. The government launched a consultation about legalising e-scooters in March and would need to pass secondary legislation to legalise their use.

Shapps also announced £10m in additional support for car-charging points on the streets, in light of the growing popularity of electric vehicles and in an effort to “keep this quiet, clean car revolution going”.

While an extra £250m has been mooted to get more people cycling and walking, campaigners say it is a drop in the ocean in terms of the amount of funding needed to effect real change.

In Manchester, creating the Bee Network, a Dutch-style 1,000-mile network of walking and biking, will cost an estimated £1.5bn, according to Chris Boardman, the Olympic champion turned walking and cycling commissioner.

“I’m here to give it to you straight. There is no simple answer,” Shapps said. “Which is why I am here today providing some notice that it is very important for people to think about how we will all get about.”

He said he would talk later about investment in roads and infrastructure and recognised that “the car will be a vital part of what’s required”. But he added: “You don’t have to be a cyclist to benefit from society as a whole switching to cycling and walking.”

He said research showed half of journeys outside London are three miles or less. If only 5% of people started cycling to work, it would mean 9m fewer car journeys, 8m fewer rail journeys and 13m fewer bus journeys.