Behaviour change and infrastructure beyond Covid-19

Status:Final report complete.  

Commission analysis of a range of scenarios for how the use of public transport, broadband networks and utilities might change as a result of the pandemic.

Executive summary

During the pandemic, a significant share of the population have been able to shift to radically different ways of working. New pressures have revealed the potential for long term changes in where people live and work and how they use infrastructure. However, the social, economic and physical connections that brought cities together before the pandemic are strong.

It is too early to assume that long term behaviour change will lead to wholly different patterns of infrastructure use. In the face of this uncertainty, long term infrastructure policy must consider the range of potential permanent changes in behaviour. This is increasingly important as policymakers begin to set out plans to deliver on the UK’s long term strategic infrastructure priorities.

Policymakers can plan for future infrastructure requirements by thinking about the realistic scenarios that could unfold, and how they could respond to the range of possibilities. This will help focus attention on the low regrets interventions that make sense across different scenarios, and on policies that can help decide the scenario by encouraging shifts in behaviour long term.

Making policy decisions during continued uncertainty may mean taking a more adaptive approach to longer term project commitments and investing in new data sources which can help understand how these changes are unfolding. All these approaches are preferable to planning on the basis of fixed assumptions about what will happen based on short term observations. The Commission’s analysis suggests that the spread of potential outcomes for transport, particularly public transport, is wider compared to digital, energy, waste and water.

Impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on infrastructure

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions have had significant impacts on patterns of infrastructure use, particularly public transport. Following the announcement of the initial lockdown in March 2020, public transport use in the UK fell by 80 to 95 per cent for different modes and, as of April 2021, is still only seeing between 30 and 50 per cent of normal use.

Several pre-existing trends have been accelerated as a result of the pandemic, such as increases in the number of people working from home and the volume of ecommerce. Conversely, other historic patterns, such as trends in commuter travel, have been reversed, with significantly fewer people using rail to commute to work since the beginning of the pandemic.

As restrictions are eased, there is uncertainty about the extent to which these changes will revert or endure. Despite the extreme shift to homeworking at the beginning of the pandemic, one third of office workers in the UK returned to their normal place of work when restrictions were temporarily lifted in summer 2020, and across the rest of Europe, two thirds of office workers returned.

Understanding behaviour change

Some understanding of the scale of the potential long term impact on infrastructure of the Covid-19 pandemic can be developed using lessons from the theories of behaviour change and historic shocks.

Theories of behaviour change generally point to certain key conditions that make behaviour change more likely. These conditions include individual factors, such as personal motivation and capability, and external factors, such as the perceived or actual consequences of changed behaviour. This complex interaction of individual choices and external factors does not enable outcomes to be readily predicted.

Analysis of comparable historic shocks suggests that short term shifts in behaviour that occur after disruptive events don’t often indicate the long term outcome.

Previous experience of systemic shocks illustrates that they are more likely to cause long term changes if they trigger adaptation of routines or practices. Often, this is determined by the flexibility that individuals and firms have to adapt, how disruptive the shocks are and whether the impacts are prolonged. Not many previous shocks have had these features. For example, remote working in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was only a temporary change as internet and business systems did not allow for productive working from home, which restricted the flexibility of individuals and firms to adapt, and the disruption did not persist for long enough to trigger long term change. In contrast, the current situation has lasted longer, and individuals and firms have had to find ways to adapt.

In some cases, policy interventions have influenced the impact and duration of shocks on infrastructure demand. For example, policies to educate the general population about the internet in South Korea alongside rollout of broadband during the first 20 years of this century – a technological ‘shock – catalysed behaviour change in recreation, social interactions and work and education activities.

Scenario analysis

No model can accurately predict how or whether the changes caused by Covid-19 will continue in the future. A more suitable approach is to consider different scenarios of how people’s behaviour might change and how policy can prepare and adapt accordingly.

The Commission has developed a set of scenarios that reflect different combinations of possible behavioural trends that could impact infrastructure use patterns. Quantitative analysis has been used to assess the implications that trends may have for infrastructure use and their magnitude.1

There are a wide range of possible outcomes for transport in particular. A rise in flexible working may result in permanently less commuting into offices – potentially affecting travel demand into bigger cities. People may seek to relocate from cities to more suburban and rural areas, if reduced need to commute means that people choose to live in quieter areas. This could affect travel patterns by causing people to commute less frequently but over longer distances or increasing car traffic in towns and suburbs. Transport may also be affected by a long term aversion to crowded spaces, causing people to avoid air travel or switch from public transport to cars. Travel for leisure may also face a decline if online shopping and entertainment remain permanently higher.

However, the long term attractiveness of flexible working to workers and employers remains unproven. The social and economic infrastructure that has drawn so many people to cities may continue to be attractive even if working patterns change. Similarly, if people wish to relocate, the availability of housing and other infrastructure in less densely developed areas may limit the extent to which this can happen in practice.

Quantitative analysis undertaken for the Commission suggests that the difference in average annual public transport trips between the scenarios with the highest and lowest levels of behaviour change could be as high as 25 per cent over the next 30 years. The variation in annual trips by car between scenarios is less but still marked, with a range of ten per cent between scenarios.

Even in scenarios where total change in demand is lower, the complexity of change in behavioural patterns may have material implications for infrastructure demand and decision making. Changes in the distribution of demand over time and place can be as significant as changes in its total level, particularly for networks that are built to manage peak time capacity. Flexible working may mean flatter peaks on public transport, potentially reducing the level of capacity required.

Additionally, modest changes in demand may also have disproportionate effects where crucial tipping points are reached. For example, a small amount of additional road traffic could lead to congestion in some town centres, potentially slowing journey times considerably. For some public transport services, a small reduction in passengers could lead to a downward spiral in revenues, possibly leading some services to be discontinued.

The implications for other sectors are likely to be less significant than for transport. The quantitative analysis suggests a ten per cent difference in digital demand in the next five years when comparing the highest and lowest behaviour change scenarios. However, this is unlikely to have a significant impact on network capacity given current trends of fast-growing demand.

The indicated variation in patterns of demand for utilities is even smaller. Scenarios for domestic use suggest a range of less than ten per cent compared against the highest scenario by the 2050s. However, the exact patterns of peak use will be important in both cases. Changes in patterns of demand that result in greater concentration at the busiest points in the day or week will pose greater challenges to service providers.

Preparing for the future

It is still far too early to draw conclusions about which behavioural trends may emerge in the long term as a result of the pandemic. In the UK, offices have not yet fully reopened. New arrangements are being proposed by several employers, but these are still to be tested. Social habits will not follow organisationally chosen pathways and may change direction some time after restrictions are eased.

However, the importance of a continued commitment to infrastructure remains high given its critical role in supporting policy goals, such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and rebalancing economic growth across the UK. Although uncertainty may point towards delaying decisions on major infrastructure projects, there is also a case for the government to take decisions to reduce uncertainty and increase confidence for the market and for investors.

Alongside the role of infrastructure investment in the economic recovery, the government should maintain focus on future infrastructure needs to achieve long term goals. To inform upcoming decisions on infrastructure and remain responsive to a breadth of outcomes, policymakers should consider the following questions:

  • What decisions are unaffected by uncertainty in behavioural patterns? Whilst outcomes for different sectors will vary depending on which scenario plays out, there are some areas which are likely to be less affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, it is certain that in any scenario for behaviour change, decarbonisation of infrastructure will remain necessary to achieve net zero by 2050.
  • When will it be clear which behaviours will be permanent? Better data gathering on indicators of how behaviour change may be manifesting, with attention to ensuring this data is timely, can help identify emerging behaviour change promptly. Additionally, it is important to avoid reliance on models that have not worked that well even under more stable conditions in the past.
  • Should policy seek to influence which scenario unfolds? The outcomes of some scenarios are likely to be less preferable than others, with varying combinations of positive and negative consequences. Policymakers should consider how policy can encourage preferred shifts in behaviour. For example, as people’s patterns of transport use are changing in response to the pandemic, there is scope to encourage more active travel or avoid a recovery scenario in which travel by car rises relative to pre-pandemic usage. Transport providers can also consider how best to ensure consistent, evidence-based information is provided to give passengers confidence to use public transport.
  • How can long term project commitments be reconciled with ongoing uncertainty? The portfolio of infrastructure investments can mitigate uncertainty by adopting a balance across different levels of risk, and having a complementary mix of programmes which cover different scenarios as well as low regrets options applicable across multiple scenarios. A particularly valuable tool may be an adaptive approach to investment, as considered by the Commission in the Rail Needs Assessment (RNA) for the North and Midlands. The RNA proposed moving forward with rail investment in stages as costs and benefits become clearer. An adaptive approach would allow for measured, forward momentum that can be modified as the long term behaviour changes become evident. In turn, this can help to preserve optionality and flexibility throughout a project. This will be particularly important in sectors where there is greater uncertainty, such as transport.

These considerations will guide the Commission in its future work, including making policy recommendations in the study underway on Infrastructure, Towns and Regeneration, and in the second National Infrastructure Assessment.

Final Report

Behaviour change and infrastructure beyond Covid-19

Commission analysis of a range of scenarios for how the use of public transport, broadband networks and utilities might change as a result of the pandemic.

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