Research suggests the pandemic will drive the public from planes, trains and buses

Date posted

27 April 2021


The Covid-19 pandemic may have long-term repercussions for the use of public transport in Scotland, a new study by Edinburgh Napier University suggests.

A survey found far fewer members of the public anticipate using buses, trains and aeroplanes after the country emerges from lockdown.

Close-up general view of buses at an angle to each other in busy city traffic

The Impact of Covid-19 on travel behaviour, transport, lifestyles and location choices in Scotland report - downloadable as a PDF here - was produced by the University’s Transport Research Institute with backing from the Scottish Funding Council.

Nearly 1000 (994) Scottish residents completed a detailed survey, designed to inform understanding of how Covid-19 might alter travel choices in the near future and guide appropriate policy responses.

Steps were taken to ensure age and gender were broadly representative of the wider population. More than a fifth (21 per cent) of respondents lived in households without access to car, while 29 per cent lived in households with two or more cars.

The survey found 45 per cent of respondents expected to walk more, 29 per cent expected to cycle more and 25 per cent expected to drive their car more in the post-Covid future than they did before the pandemic.

However, in stark contrast, 42 per cent anticipated using aeroplanes less, 36 per cent using buses less and 34 per cent using trains less.

The most common reasons given for using public transport less in the future were the possibility of getting infections from other passengers, lack of cleanliness/hygiene on board and overcrowding.

Dr Achille Fonzone, Associate Professor of Transport Analysis and Planning at Edinburgh Napier, said: “Although part of it may be due to current overexposure to discussions about infective diseases and so be transient, such lack of confidence in public transport is not good news for the industry. It is not good news for Scotland either, considering the importance of public transport to ensure an equitable and sustainable mobility.”

Dr Greg Fountas, from the University’s School of Engineering and the Built Environment, said: “A shift to private cars post-pandemic would hamper the efforts to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the transport sector. That is alarming for Scotland, where transport constitutes the largest source of greenhouse emissions – more than one third of the country’s total emissions in 2018, according to the Scottish Government.”

Dr Fonzone, pictured, added: “Reducing inequalities and the impact on the environment are the two top priorities of the National Transport Strategy of the Scottish Government. The potential loss of demand for public transport must be understood better and suitable actions must be taken as soon as possible.

Head and shoulders of Achille Fonzone, bespectacled, in jacket and open neck shirt

The report’s lead author Lucy Downey, from the School of Engineering and the Built Environment, highlighted the finding that walking and cycling are among the lockdown behaviours likely to remain popular in the post-Covid future.

She said: “The findings are positive for active travel, which seeks to promote healthy journeys and offer viable alternatives to the private car or public transport for short journeys and an opportunity for exercise.”

In other findings, over half of workers (54 per cent) expect to work from home more in the post-Covid future than they did before the pandemic and 64 per cent stated that they will use technology more to communicate with colleagues, customers or clients. Over half (52 per cent) of respondents expect to use technology to communicate with family and friends more. 

When asked about their anticipated future shopping habits, 45 per cent expected to do more online non-grocery shopping in the future and 36 per cent anticipate using home delivery for supermarket shopping more.

Covid may affect the housing market as well, increasing the number of those considering relocating. Respondents who indicated that they expect to move from their current accommodation were asked where they would like to move. The majority (57 per cent) would like to stay in the same local area, but move to different accommodation, 33 per cent would like to move from their local area but stay in Scotland and 10 per cent would like to move away from Scotland.

Edinburgh Napier’s Transport Research Institute, Scotland’s largest and longest established transport research group, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. An open Timeline event on Thursday April 29, in the form of an online webinar, will chart its inception and development, and offer a glimpse of future plans.