Is rush hour a thing of the past?

Using data to measure transport’s return to a ‘new normal’

Atkins, working closely with BT’s Active Intelligence team, has been using mobile network data to monitor the shift in usage of some of the UK’s key roads since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Using anonymised and aggregated data, we can gain insights into what to expect for the future of our roads. We have been collating data throughout the lockdown, providing key information on journey volumes, average journey lengths, journey regularity (how frequently the same journeys are made) and overall origins and destinations. By comparing data gathered during the lockdown with the same period in 2019, we have witnessed substantial changes to road usage. Differences are likely to remain until we lift all coronavirus related restrictions, and so understanding what’s happening on the UK’s roads will be particularly important in the coming months.

The effects of lockdown so far

The graph below shows the changes in daily traffic volumes across the northern Major Road Network (nearly 5000 miles of key roads in the north of England). Total road usage has varied greatly to normal conditions, showing road users have responded quickly to changing government guidelines throughout the pandemic. Monitoring the increase in road usage until we ease the lockdown will be crucial in Covid-19 recovery planning, as the potential for a ‘bounce-back’ above 2019 levels, due to an avoidance of public transport, could have significant implications.

However, changes to road usage during the pandemic have been broader than just a reduction in overall traffic volumes. There has also been a significant shift in the type of journeys being made during the lockdown, and the reasons for making them. We can see this in the graphs below which show a comparison of average journey length and journey regularity for the northern major road network during the pandemic, with that of 2019. Such an increase in journey regularity and drop-in weekend journey length during the lockdown reflects the change in public behaviour to only travelling when it is essential to do so.

As recovery planning continues and further adaptations to our way of life emerge, monitoring these measures, to understand the purpose of journeys, will be as important as monitoring overall traffic volumes.

Commuter chaos could be a thing of the past

One of the fundamental effects of the pandemic is the relationship many people have with their place of work. Statements from both large and small businesses show that the coronavirus lockdown has proven some level of remote working is possible, and perhaps preferable, for the majority of office-based workers. Indications are, that flexible or remote working will continue in some form for a large proportion of the UK’s workforce. This idea is reinforced by data from Rightmove which shows that there has been a nearly 40% increase in homebuyers prioritising improved home-work space in their next property. With home working expected to continue for many - what effect will this have on the UKs transport networks? Will the number of commuters fall, or could flexible working hours allow people to avoid rush hour traffic?

The data Atkins and BT have gathered throughout the UK’s lockdown allows us to understand current trends and predict the likely long-term consequences of increased remote working on the road network and in particular, daily commuter traffic peaks.

April 2019 weekday morning peak origins

The reduced geographical spread of journey origins in April 2020 shows the effect remote working could have on road usage. It’s logical to expect those with the longer commutes would work from home more frequently than those with shorter commutes, and therefore traffic on key roads in and out of towns and cities will become more localised. If peak travel demand reduces, traffic on key ‘corridor’ roads that we’ve relied on in the past may ease more than on local networks.

Looking at the long term, when social distancing is no longer required and public transport usage has returned to pre-covid levels; the UK can expect some reductions in peak traffic levels, aided by increased flexibility to work schedules. However, these benefits are likely to vary across local and strategic roads.

April 2020 weekday morning peak origins

Data we are harnessing for measures such as journey regularity and average journey length, along with origin and destination maps, will be highly beneficial in viewing where these changes to commuting patterns are happening.

Using the Manchester postcode area as an example, the heat maps to the right show the proportions of journey origins for weekday morning peak travel on Manchester’s key roads in April 2019 and April 2020.

Local variation

As shown to the right, the Manchester postcode and its neighbouring areas saw a smaller reduction in traffic during April than many areas. Could this be because a lower proportion of the workforce in the Manchester area has been able to work from home? Using mobile network data provides additional benefits in trying to answer these questions, with the potential to layer population demographic data onto the traffic data.

Major road network traffic reductions in April 2020 compared to April 2019

To better understand the causes of these differences, the red map to the right shows the change in average peak time journey regularity from April 2019 to April 2020, in each postcode area.

Interestingly, whilst the Manchester area saw one of the lower reductions in traffic volumes, but one of the higher increases in journey regularity. Both measures suggest that the major roads in the Manchester area see a relatively high proportion of commuters in jobs that they cannot carry out remotely. In a post coronavirus world, we can glean that changes to peak commuter traffic on key roads are likely to be less significant in Manchester than many other northern postcode areas.

Major road network journey regularity change in April 2020 compared to April 2019.

This local variation in how road usage reacts to the ‘new normal’ will be important to consider with any adaptations to the network. Increased intelligence about how a road network is being utilised will allow authorities to make more targeted, efficient and reliable improvements.

Looking ahead

From our review of just three months of data during the lockdown, we can already see how commuter traffic patterns are likely to see the biggest changes and will require the most adaptations. The data above highlights how nuanced this discussion is and how it is not just a change in volumes we will see, but a change in purpose, destinations and how often people travel.

Atkins and BT are continuing to process the data required to analyse the UKs road usage, both in the short and longer-term. With some coronavirus restrictions likely to be in place for many months to come, we expect data like this will be essential for authorities as they review transport services, congestion hot spots, air quality and traffic management strategies.

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