Back to work, COVID-19 style: image by Michal Kluzinski
Back to work, COVID-19 style: image by Michal Kluzinski


On Sunday evening (10th May) Boris Johnson called for the people of England to get back to work. Or at least people in certain sectors – construction, manufacturing and people who can’t work from home. This is a positive sign for many employees, businesses and of course the economy.


Boris said: 


And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited. So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home. And to ensure you are safe at work we have been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces Covid-secure. And when you do go to work, if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle. But just as with workplaces, public transport operators will also be following Covid-secure standards.”


On Wednesday 13th of May those workplaces will reopen, many already have done earlier this week. From June the 1st even more businesses will be allowed to reopen – as long as we don’t hit a second spike.


It’s all good news – aside from the fact that not a lot has changed since lockdown began on March 23rd. We have no vaccine to protect us, or antibody test to see if we’ve had the virus and could have immunity/less chance of contracting it. The latest news is that we may never even get a vaccination to prevent COVID-19. So we’re still as likely to lose at Chinese Roulette if we do get it.


40,000 UK deaths


When I say not a lot has changed, let’s not forget the 40,000 deaths (and counting – according to The Guardian today). That’s quite an increase from the six deaths we reported on March 10th – at that time the UK wasn’t even in the ‘world top 10’ for coronavirus. We’re currently in the lead in Europe and running second behind the USA in a game none of us wanted to win.


Deserted Eastleigh station earlier today: image by Michal Kluzinski
Deserted Eastleigh station earlier today: image by Michal Kluzinski


Although Boris wants to get the country working again he doesn’t really want you to use public transport to get to work – remember close proximity isn’t good. In fact he asked people to walk, cycle or go by car instead if at all possible. That’s just as well really because public transport is running at just 10% of its usual capacity and would you really want to be crammed onto a packed underground platform at a tube station when things start to get back to our new kind of normal?


Social distancing – 262 fewer passengers per train


Earlier today we asked a railway guard to let us know how rail capacity will be affected by new social distancing measures. He told us:


I’m bored on the 09:35 from Waterloo so I’ve been counting seats. I reckon if we were to impose social distancing seating on our trains we could accommodate 96 people sat down on a five-car train. As opposed to the normal 358.”


That’s a hell of a lot of passengers trying to get on what would usually be an already over-full train during peak times. Getting to and from work may never be the same again for many city commuters.


Changing habits


Over the last few years, London commuters have been encouraged/forced to change transport habits by the introduction of congestion charging and more recently ULEZ – Ultra Low Emission Zones. The use of polluting vehicles has been as welcome as a coughing fit on the 7:19 to Liverpool Street and congestion has been second in the list of most-heinous hate crimes. The logistics of actually getting to work have changed significantly for many. Public transport use has been positively encouraged. 


Then we had an outbreak of a new virus that turned into a worldwide pandemic and literally closed the country/world down. Now what?


Deserted Kings Cross 18:05 Monday 11th May: image by Ben Ford
Deserted Kings Cross 18:05 Monday 11th May: image by Ben Ford


Photos of public transport in the mainstream media this week have shown packed train carriages and platforms, although some of the train drivers/guards and passengers we’ve spoken to say it’s still very quiet on public transport. 


Train driver Ben Ford


“During full lockdown, the trains were as low as less than 10% of normal. Frequently empty and even in the morning and evening, just a few getting on and off. Some ‘Mr Outraged’ posted a photo of an LNER service with quite a few passengers alighting yesterday morning but the photo above was taken at Kings Cross at 18.05 last night, as you probably know that area is normally almost a rugby scrum.”


“My missus is temporarily going into the city by car as charges and restrictions are lifted and she said it was still ok yesterday with the trip taking the same time as last week. Personally I have noticed an increase in road traffic since Saturday and a slight increase on trains but not much yet.”

Train capacity is reduced from 358 to just 96 under social distancing measures: Image by Gareth Bishop
Train capacity is reduced from 358 to just 96 under social distancing measures: Image by Gareth Bishop

Excerpt from Boris’ ‘Get back to work’ speech on Sunday 


We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must. We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work”

Simon Light, Executive Managing Director for Europe, Middle East & Africa at leading professional services company, GHD, made the following comments about social distancing:




“In dynamic environments such as train stations or public spaces, even if people try to adhere to social distancing, the two-metre guidance will be broken constantly unless everyone’s movement is co-ordinated or crowding is very low. This will drive huge inefficiency in transport operations and we are a long way off seeing transport networks operating at pre-COVID-19 levels. Operators will need to install appropriate physical business continuity measures, which support the behavioural change required in public spaces.”


“Capacity management needs to be brought in at stations and platforms in order to meet social distancing requirements. CCTV information could be analysed to monitor platform density and manage ingress and egress, potentially with ‘metering barriers’ controlling access to the station. However, this could have negative consequences at the street level which will need to be managed. New camera-based technologies will enhance this, but an acceleration of ‘normal’ approval processes will be required.”


Urban infrastructure


“Combining technology with redesigned transport infrastructure to safely increase the movement of people will be a key priority to enable towns and cities to see a return to revenues, especially in step 3, when leisure facilities might start to open and the summer holidays begin.”


“If road networks are physically changed to promote active travel options, we can use mobile data to monitor the effectiveness of this with regards to social distancing. Intersection crowding analysis and traffic signal optimisation will play a key role here.”


Scooter commuter Martin Mcgowan


To prove a point about increasing traffic volumes…


“The roads were rammed this morning. Back to a forty-minute ride (it’s only 13 miles), my best time the first week of lockdown was 28 minutes. Twelve minutes of my journey this morning was at the bottleneck by Rotherhithe Tunnel, caused by the construction of the new cycle super-highway. One narrow lane now for all other traffic, including buses, taxis, motorbikes HGV’s etc. The cyclists have a two-way track, that crosses the road. It’s a ‘kin nightmare, and I’m sure the brief must have been to just piss everyone, except cyclists off as much as possible.”


What’s the solution?


We’ve got a crippled country trying to slowly walk again. Our transport infrastructure has been diminished by social distancing to 10% of what it was. We’re trying to encourage people to walk to work (great if you’re not far away), cycle to work (same again if you’re fit and able and don’t live miles away and your workplace has storage washing and changing facilities). Drive in to work, ok that’s an option for many but gridlocked city centres aren’t really the best way to start your day. You’ll arrive late, stressed and then have to try and find somewhere to park. Not good. 


London commuting


Ride to work?


I must say I was quite perturbed that the one naturally social distancing mode of transport wasn’t even mentioned by the Prime Minister as a way to get the country back to work. We don’t have to wait for new cycle paths to be built or for work places to stagger staff working times. Two wheels (or 3, if we’re talking Piaggio MP3/Yamaha Tricity/Quadro etc.) is the answer to many problems of mobilisation in the current situation. It’s fast, efficient and fairly accessible. 


We all know the benefits of riding, both emotionally and practically. We know that for most journeys there is no better way to travel and that there are bikes and scooters for all budgets and to cater for long or short journeys. We know that we can arrive at work on time even when congestion is heavy. A skilled rider is safer on his, or her own riding to work than that person would be if crammed into a tube station every morning (and night) during this outbreak. 


Commuter London

Department for Transport


Ok, not all trades can use a Powered Two Wheeler as their work tool but the vast majority who rely on public transport to get to and from their place of work certainly can. Why isn’t the Department for Transport promoting their use rather than constructing even more cycle super-highways? We’ve asked both the DfT and Government but are still waiting for an answer.


The motorcycle industry could certainly do with a boost right now (as could all businesses) and now is the perfect time to sell two wheels to new riders. Encourage your friends and work colleagues to take the plunge and get on-board the best form of social isolation. 




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