Image of a family with a dog cycling through woodland
Walking and cycling can improve physical and mental wellbeing as so help strengthen resilience against public health crises © Waterman Infrastructure and Environment Ltd
Walking and cycling can improve physical and mental wellbeing as so help strengthen resilience against public health crises © Waterman Infrastructure and Environment Ltd

Changing Behaviour Under Covid-19

By Mark Powers, Technical Director at Waterman Infrastructure and Environment Ltd

Waterman Group is a multidisciplinary consultancy providing sustainable solutions to meet the planning, engineering design and project delivery needs of the property, infrastructure, environment and energy markets.

The last 10 weeks have been unparalleled for all of us, but the collective response across the industry has been swift and, for the large part, effective.

We have been able to quickly move all staff to home-working making full use of technology – meaning we have continued to operate without disruption. With tailored working practices and specific risk assessments in place, we’ve been able to safely visit sites to collect vital data and carry out site inspections.

We have seen a shift in the development sector as a result of Covid-19. Work carefully continues to progress and committed schemes are brought forward through virtual planning committee meetings. However, there is now an increased emphasis on wellbeing and sustainable travel solutions. For example, we are working with highway authorities to develop and implement pop-up cycle lanes as a viable alternative to public transport. This will allow people to move around safely whilst social distancing measures are in place.

There are challenges though – the issues affecting availability of data, whether through limited access to libraries and archives or traffic surveys not being considered representative of normal conditions, are significant.

However we have been successful in using alternative sources, repurposing older data sets or incorporating more emphasis on sensitivity testing possible scenarios. This has also benefited from having good and honest working relationships with Council Officers and other decision makers.

Looking further ahead, the longer-term economic picture is uncertain and there will no doubt be impacts on the development sector. Perhaps demand for office space may face more uncertainty as people feel more able to work from home? Will housing demand change as people feel able to live further from their place of employment? Changes to the nature and use of town centres will also continue. But there are opportunities to adapt to the needs of local populations in these areas, rebalancing traditional approaches to retail, leisure and community uses.

Perhaps the most significant considerations are those arising from the ‘new normal’. Working patterns have adapted better in some sectors than others resulting in a much-reduced demand for travel. There are questions about whether this will be sustained, or whether it will revert in the longer-term.

Will recent trends in declining private car use reverse due to social distancing? Current opinion would suggest that shared mobility and public transport (especially bus use) may face an uncertain future, especially in areas with historically low numbers of services. But on the other hand, the benefits of walking and cycling are particularly relevant in improving physical and mental wellbeing. These can help improve resilience against public health crises.

All of these issues will have to be factored into the design of developments, over the shorter- and longer-term.

In all of this, we must not forget the urgency of moving towards zero carbon in the long term. In responding to the Covid-19 crisis, all sectors have shown the ability to change quickly and to adapt.

Commentary from the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research suggests that if Covid-19 results in a 5% drop in emissions this year, this level of change needs to be maintained each year to achieve net-zero in 2050.

Indeed, in May this year, the Committee on Climate Change wrote to the Prime Minister
emphasising that there was an opportunity to “…embed new social norms, especially for travel, that benefit well-being, improve productivity, and reduce emissions”.

The UK Government is already committed to reducing emissions and decarbonising across sectors, including power generation, building stock, industry, natural resources and transport. We continue to provide advice to public and private organisations on these aspects, but it is up to everyone to work together to find solutions. Covid-19 will be memorable for many reasons. Perhaps we can find some positive lessons from it to apply to future sustainable development.

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