UK government releases Covid-19 'safer travel guidance' for public transport users

Great news, commuters: the UK government has released its guidance for how to use public transport safely in the age of covid-19. 

As is often the way with official government documents, the guidance is much shorter than it looks: it frequently repeats itself, as it offers basically the same set of suggestions for when using each different mode of transport. Much of the advice for how to behave in a taxi, it turns out, can also apply on a train.

The document begins by asking you to consider whether your journey is really necessary, and suggesting you walk or cycle if you can. A fair chunk of the suggestions that follow fall under the heading of “helpful, but essentially common sense”: if you can, travel at off-peak times; buy tickets electronically or using contactless payments to avoid contact; where possible, wear face coverings (this won’t protect you, the guidance admits, but could protect others from your germs).

Others, though, sound more like wishful thinking.

“Taking a less busy route and reducing the number of changes (for example between bus and train) will help you keep your distance from others.” 

I’m sure that’s true – but the least busy route is not necessarily the one involving fewest changes, so the two halves of this sentence may contradict one another. And anyway, if less busy routes were available surely most people will take them already? “Take the least unpleasant route to work,” is not helpful advice.

This line has a similar problem: 

“Try to start or end your journey using a station or mode of transport you know to be quieter or more direct. For instance, walk the first or last mile of your journey, or alight at an earlier station, where this is possible.”

Nice idea, but simply put, not everyone will have the option. Then there’s this piece of genius:

“Wait for the next service if you cannot safely keep your distance on board a train, bus or coach.” 

Can we really feel confident that the next service will be quieter? Even though, on Saturday, transport secretary Grant Shapps said that the UK’s transport network would be operating at 10% of capacity?

That feels unlikely to me. In fact, elsewhere, the guidance all but admits as much...

“Some routes may be busier than usual due to social distancing measures or changes to previous timetables or schedules. Keep your distance from people outside your household. Public Health England recommends keeping a distance of 2 metres, where possible.”

That “where possible” is doing a lot of heavy lifting.

At any rate: it is probably better that the government issues guidance than that it doesn’t. But I’m not sure how useful any of this really is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.



Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.