City centres have been decimated since March 2020 as workers and companies have had to radically reshape the way business is done as we manage our way through the COVID-19 pandemic. Colab and Consult LLP has been collaborating with an urban regeneration consultancy offering views on urban transport integration into future town centre design.
Urban and town planning, and transport connectivity are intrinsically linked, but are we seeing potential for new transport opportunities as employment patterns have been so radically disrupted?
Home working and rise of technology
Home working and use of technology to interact with colleagues has been around for years. Technological capability has improved rapidly, and many companies have become more comfortable with employees being in the office for less than 5 days per week. The real and future impact on transport networks have been apparent for several years, with patronage on commuter rail services notably reducing on Mondays and Fridays. COVID-19 caused a seismic shift in rail patronage with industry figures reporting a 80% drop on passengers numbers compared with this time last year. Similar falls are seen on other mass-transit modes.
COVID-19 has forced an accelerated acceptance of the shift to non-office working. Meanwhile, many businesses dependent on footfall, such as coffee shops, restaurants and city-based convenience stores, have suffered. Research by Arup calculates that 100 office-based workers sustain up to seven jobs in retail, six in the hotel industry, four in food and beverage and one in the entertainment sector.
Employees have seen benefits to their work-life balance and some employers have even found productivity gains, rather than validation of perhaps pre-conceived fears that if not in the office and under supervision, then staff will take advantages. Many employees have found significant financial benefit too. I have seen numerous posts through social media of how much people are saving by working from home by avoiding commuting costs, fuel, parking, travel cards, lunchtime lattes and sandwiches, not to mention the odd post-work pint. Savings of £800/month or more are not uncommon; the equivalent of a pay rise from £40,000 to £55,000 in other words.
How long will the work from home glow last?
Humans are a social species however, so is this a honeymoon period of novel working? Will people find working from the kitchen table sustainable or will the desire for real social contact in a work environment drive a shift back to communal offices? Is our housing stock, particularly relatively small flats and houses in high density developments, designed to accommodate an appropriate long-term workspace or will we see a legacy of heath and back problems as a result of working in an ergonomically poor environment?
These questions got us thinking; is this an opportunity to reinvigorate the fortunes of smaller towns and cities, even villages, where common workspaces could offer the convenience of being close to home with the social value of being with colleagues – even if they worked for someone else? What would this mean for town centre design, smaller town centre vibrancy and urban transport solutions as housing stock is often clustered close to urban centres but, particularly in the South East, many urban centres have become a commuter ghost towns?
Flexible office space
We noted while working on a client project in Manchester in 2019 that there was deliberate town planning effort to regenerate the city to reintroduce housing into the centre, mixing with office space, retail and social space to bring back a sense of community vibrancy. On another client project, a short-term office space in Glasgow was used which provided a common breakout space with office space options for start-ups through to larger project teams. Local to my home in Perth and Kinross, there is a small business offering common space for start-ups and small business in the digital sector. Could shared workspace continue to evolve to be the model for the future?
What if smaller town centres could accommodate people going to work in shared office spaces that provided the social value of the traditional single-company office, commuting from nearby housing? Generally, and assuming the economy recovers, higher paid, more active white-collar workers would have more disposable income to spend locally. Could this trigger the development of opportunity for local businesses to service this need, an evening economy to develop, greater potential to sustain a smaller scale shared use active travel solution with better utilisation for more of the day?
Urban transport opportunities
UK Government’s £2 billion proposal to kickstart walking and cycling as a COVID-19 response to improving the nation’s health if spent on better, safer cycling infrastructure is particularly valuable to smaller towns where traditional drivers of these investments, like chronic congestion and pressure on land use, are often not huge issues.
Relatively low overall demand leads to patchy public transport services often operating at low utilisation through the day and the ability to make a viable business case for lower cost shared use services like public cycle hire is very challenging. Combined with the relative ease of driving into and out of town centres and parking cheaply inevitable make private car use hard to break.
But, encouraging more people to use flexible office facilities in their local town centres more often and more creatively instead of the kitchen table would drive up demand to deliver improved cycling infrastructure that meets the needs of people living and working locally and could underpin the viability of smaller scale cycle hire, ebike and escooter schemes through greater opportunity to build a level of demand that would sustain them.
Perhaps the technology is sufficiently advanced to make this a reality and perhaps COVID-19 has proven that remote working is viable for many. But no amount of Zoom or Team calls can really make up for our human need to interact with others. I’d certainly welcome going to ‘work’ a couple of miles on my bike using safer infrastructure to sit at a desk in a common space with great internet connection, a dynamic buzz of interesting and diverse people and to support the local economy with some of the money I’d saved from avoiding a long and often expensive commute.
Martin Bignell is a Partner at Colab & Consult, an organisation that can help operators, consultancies and the public sector with their active travel projects, from strategic development to delivery. For more information, visit www.colabandconsult.co.uk
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