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24 February, 2021updated 29 Oct 2021 07:18

Safer, greener, virus-proof: How will a post-Covid transport sector look?

The Covid-19 outbreak has affected every area of the transport sector, forcing it to reassess its short and long-term future, with sustainability, safety and resilience at the top of the agenda.

By Viola Caon

plane-covid-transport

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a deep impact on every area of the transport sector, but aviation has been dealt the hardest blow. (Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Back in May 2020, the UK government held a consultation with more than 1,000 infrastructure experts to assess their concerns in a post-pandemic scenario. The responses highlighted the need for the UK, and other countries, to work towards building resilience against future pandemics, especially in the public transport sector.

While in the short to medium term the industry experts worried about how to maintain social distancing on public transport, they suggested more structural changes in the way the whole sector is conceived in the long term.

“For example, they note that public spaces (such as railway stations or city centres) are not currently designed to allow for metres of distance between people,” the consultation reads. “Similarly, materials have not previously been chosen based on how long a virus or bacterium could survive on their surface. They suggest that in the future, the UK may need to build pandemic preparedness into building codes to prevent future outbreaks.”

While it is still difficult to make hard predictions on what the future holds for the sector, Covid-19 has certainly dealt a severe blow to many of the traditional ways in which the transport industry operates. Sustainability has certainly been pushed higher up the agenda, however, in a sector that is one of the largest global contributors to carbon emissions.

A new, sustainable approach to transport

“The sustainability agenda touches across the transport sector as a whole and as such is creating plenty of investment opportunities at a time of crisis,” says Adam Petrie, principal at infrastructure investor AMP Capital.

Nearly one year on from the government consultation, most commuters in the UK are still working remotely and the situation throughout the Western world has not returned to normality either.

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Waste recycling, water filtration and in general the idea of the circular economy are broadening the investment landscape and, in the transport and passenger movement sub-sectors, e-mobility and certain parts of the logistics sector are also seen as promising.

The sustainability agenda touches across the transport sector as a whole and as such is creating plenty of investment opportunities at a time of crisis. Adam Petrie, AMP Capital

Overall, the investment drivers behind transport investment are changing, according to Petrie. “Before Covid-19 struck, it was all about speed, efficiency and cost,” he says. “Going forward, flexibility, sustainability and safety will become key.”

In September 2020, for instance, AMP Capital established a joint venture with Enel X to roll-out electric public transportation across the Americas. The joint venture owns a fleet of 433 operating electric buses and associated charging infrastructure in Santiago in Chile.

The Covid-specific difficulties faced by the aviation industry

While there is optimism around finding ways to make railways, buses and metro systems more sustainable, resilient and virus proof, there is an acceptance that there are greater difficulties in the case of airports.

Arguably the hardest hit by Covid-19, the aviation sector is in dire need of finding a safe and sustainable way back into business once international, and indeed domestic, travel resumes at a higher pace.

Petrie believes that logistics networks around airport terminals can address part of the issue. “The two biggest drivers of airports emissions are surface access and the airplanes themselves,” he says. “While on the latter airlines still have a long way to go, on the former the private sector can, for instance, make a strong contribution by partnering with local authorities and replace buses with railways transport, which allows for more social distancing and fewer emissions at the same time.”

Rethinking transport in an age of flexible working

A more virus-proof, or at least virus-resilient, transport system may only be feasible – and indeed business-viable – if traffic and commuting levels do not resume at pre-Covid levels for a prolonged period of time.

The industry has realised, for instance, that travelling for business as much as we used to is not necessary and that is a game changer. Manuel Zafra, Globalvia

The cultural shift that the pandemic has accelerated in establishing flexible working as a viable option in both the eyes of employers and employees globally may well continue and remain after the crisis is resolved.

“The industry has realised, for instance, that travelling for business as much as we used to is not necessary and that is a game changer,” says Manuel Zafra, US business development director at Spanish developer Globalvia. “On top of that, companies are allowing employees to work remotely on a permanent basis and that will play a key role in the way we plan infrastructure.”

For instance, Zafra adds, there is much talk in the industry about how to build less-crowded public transport and he explains that Globalvia has been increasing the presence of contactless payment solutions across its railway networks to allow for more safety and social distancing.

“There is still plenty at stake and a lot will depend on how vaccination programmes progress and how soon and how frequently people will return to commute into their offices. Uncertainty is definitely still to be expected,” he concludes.

How can tech make transport safer?

Applying technology to public transport might provide another solution to make the whole sector safer and more resilient in a post-pandemic scenario.

“The industry has been trying to figure out a way to use technology to improve the transport sector for a while,” says Michael Likosky, partner at Advantage Infrastructure Advisors. “While it has been a difficult path so far, technology-driven and data-driven transport might make freight systems a lot more efficient, sustainable and indeed pandemic-resilient in future.”

While the most immediate focus, even beyond the transport sector, will be on how to handle the fallout of Covid-19, adopting sustainable solutions to make it both greener and more resilient to future shocks is a trend that has already taken hold.

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