Overcoming ‘mind the gap’ – fighting the effects of Coronavirus with data

Director Andrew Whittingham is optimistic about the post-lockdown challenge of gathering reliable travel survey data.

The headline of an article by the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority in The Times recently was very apt: ‘Robust, timely data is the only way to fight coronavirus’.  In the article, David Norgrove explains that statistical data collection has been reformed due to the pandemic.  A mixture of weekly surveys and real-time information about people and businesses was – and still is – essential to Government briefings.  It’s a long way from Annual Monitoring Reports.

Transport forecasting

In the transport planning sector, undertaking travel surveys when the past is not an indication of the future is a challenge.  As the planning system is encouraged to facilitate rapid development as part of the ‘Build, Build, Build’ programme, there is a danger that a ‘mind the gap’ phenomenon could occur in terms of the delayed provision of base traffic flow data and forecasts in our assessments.

In its daily briefings, the Government used data from the ONS to provide information on travel behaviour.  This is published every Wednesday and has demonstrated that travel is rapidly returning to pre-COVID levels.  On Sunday 12 July, the data showed that travel by car was back to almost ‘normal’ across the UK.

Travel patterns

Weekday travel patterns also show a significant increase in traffic due to the changed equation between rising school-related travel and reduced journey-to-work travel.  A contributory factor is the guidance to avoid using public transport if possible and travel by car, which is changing to allow the return to work to be encouraged.

The ONS dataset reports regularly on journey-to-work trends by week.  This source will be important to understand how the forthcoming return to the workplace by many people affects travel behaviour.

This gives confidence, in my view, that ‘mind the gap’ can be avoided.  Access to reliable travel survey data will contribute to an efficient planning process, helping to rebuild the UK economy.

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