Transport, ‘public’ space, and the geographies of getting back to work

By Alex Jackman, RGS-IBG

As lockdown rules and social distancing restrictions start to ease around the world, more workplaces, schools and businesses are beginning to reopen.  Geographers are now working to understand changing patterns of mobility and the challenges of social distancing in transport, work patterns and  limited public space.  

Just as the pandemic has played out in different ways at different scales and in different places, so too have modes of travel and city transit systems been affected, with Bloomberg’s City lab providing details graphics of the global situation. Local strategies for getting populations moving again must therefore adapt to these particular geographies. 

For many, a return to work means a return to commuting. Social distancing means some public transport networks are operating with more limited capacity, and many people are considering walking or cycling as alternatives. However, existing infrastructure may not be meet increased demand: research conducted at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, for example,has shown that in London pavements are too narrow for social distancing. Some council planning departments have already responded to this by widening pavements and  ESRI has made data available for local authorities and others across the UK to undertake similar modelling. Alongside this, Robin Lovelace and colleagues have produced a Rapid Cycleway Prioritisation Tool at a national scale to identify roads where there is both space and demand for cycling infrastructure, while Duncan Smith has analysed the role of cycling as a solution and used GIS to identify key routes for walking and cycling within London. 

Beyond infrastructure, there is also the complex matter of personal choice in commuting. Drawing on the UK National Travel Survey, Ying Jin and Kaveh Jahanshahi have identified some current patterns in commuting, noting associations between Covid-19 cases, populations densities and commuting patterns. They have also suggested questions on the future of transport around how physical proximity impacts different modes of transport in different places. Rather than adapting previous commuting and mobility it is possible that new  patterns of transport and work may be needed. Joe Seymour of AECOM suggests that sustainable transport and flexible work hours could replace existing patterns of commuting. This may also be driven by public attitudes to public transport and feelings of threat and danger associated with these confined spaces. 

Much of the analysis of lockdown mobility and transport use has drawn on reports and large datasets collected from users of AppleCitymapper and Google’s mapping products.Data are also available from the Department for Transport,  DescartesLab and PlaceIQ, while Foursquare are tracking US footfall as people return to work.  The Urban Big Data Centre have used crowdsourced data to analyse trends in cycling and on traffic in Glasgow under lockdown. Analysis of such data has prompted both mapping solutions – such as ESRI’s use of BlueDot data to show mobility changes –  as well as geographers’ questions about the priorities of transport policy in the UK. 

Beyond transport, maintaining social distancing in public or shared spaces remains a challenge. Many public spaces are not designed or equipped to enable social distancing. Disparities in access to private open space were highlighted in work by the ONS and Ordnance Survey. This found 12% of households had no access to a garden during lockdown and that these households were concentrated in urban centres, placing pressure on urban public green space. Experiences of immobility and feelings of entrapment have played out through various intersections with age, class, gender, sexuality and illness, as discussed in this blog series from QMUL geographers . 

Businesses are facing the challenge of re-opening for customers within guidelines and are usingspatial analysis and technology to help address this. For example,  BuroHappold’s Workplace Analytics team have modelled individual movement in socially distanced offices, finding that office spaces would have to be reconfigured to permit more than 40% occupancy with social distancing.  One company in the UK has even created wearable tags to alert workers when they move within 2m of each other. Efforts to understand and respond to these changing geographies  make clear that the challenges of Covid-19 can differ across places, populations, and scales. Communities may increasingly take responsibility for mobility, use of space and safe distancing measures  on the micro-scale as well as within local authorities, regional and national government. As ever, geographers have an important role in providing geographical insight and analysis, as well as enabling business, research, and policy communities to build shared solutions to challenges at all scales.  


About the author: Alex Jackman has a Masters in International Development from University of Edinburgh and is Professional and Policy Assistant in the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) team working to highlight and celebrate the impact and relevance of geographical skills, knowledge and understanding for policy- and decision-making. The team’s remit includes a range of knowledge exchange activities and managing the Society’s professional accreditation, Chartered Geographer, and they recently launched a new online series celebrating excellence and innovation in Geovisualisation. Learn more about the Society’s work with and for professional communities.

Suggested further reading

Vich, G., Marquet, O. and Miralles‐Guasch, C. (2017), Suburban commuting and activity spaces: using smartphone tracking data to understand the spatial extent of travel behaviour. The Geographical Journal doi:10.1111/geoj.12220

Kwan, M.‐P. and Kotsev, A. (2015), Gender differences in commute time and accessibility in Sofia. The Geographical Journal, doi:10.1111/geoj.12080

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