As the pandemic changes our relationship with the car and travelling - where does Gloucestershire go now?

Written by: Simon Hacker | Posted 10 June 2020 8:11

March was brutal for the car industry. UK new car registrations, for what’s historically a fill-your-boots period, nose-dived year-on-year by 44 per cent. Lurch forward to May and the drop was 89 per cent.  

As the global paralysis in production and demand rolled on, analyst Ian Henry, whose agency AutoAnalysis conducts forecasting for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, openly asked a question that haunts the industry: “What will be the state of consumer demand after this? Will the man in the street want to buy a new car?” 

While Coronavirus takes chunks out of our car-centric culture and dealerships in Gloucestershire reel from its body-blows (having only just tentatively reopened) a bigger question is emerging: post-Corona, what will be the ‘new normal’ for motorists? 

What was once the preserve, says the Office for National Statistics, of about five per cent of working people, working from home has soared as a necessity for business survival, escalating the figure of 1.7 million to 8.7 million clocking on remotely at least for part of the week. 

For many, it’s been a reluctant balancing act, but has led to a road-usage reduction of up to 73 per cent, winding the clock back to 1955 in terms of traffic volume. 

And with software such as Zoom replacing real-life acceleration, while the county prepares to trial ‘pop-up’ cycling lanes, many predict the virus is fracturing our innate dependence on car-based commuting. 

Drivers who might habitually spend up to four hours a day at the wheel are discovering free time to be outside and ponder a clearer horizon. 

Not surprisingly, there is palpable political energy to retain any perceived clean air and health benefits that may come with investment in a less car-dependent economy. 

This week the latest instalment of details unveiling the next stage of the West Cheltenham Transport Improvement Scheme (WCTIS) - which stressed the £1.6m of walking cycling improvements were very much part of the project which will link Cheltenham to the new cyber park. 

David Owen, CEO of GFirst LEP, said: “Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, our draft Local Industrial Strategy highlighted our desire to increase investment in both cycling and walking infrastructure across the county and to focus on climate change. 

“The increase in usage of bikes over the past few months has been one of the few positives coming out of ‘lockdown’ and this investment will help to improve the road infrastructure for cyclists and walkers even further in West Cheltenham.” 

So, should we prepare for a tide of cheap, unwanted cars on eBay? Not for as long as personal transport is perceived as the safest route out of a pandemic. 

More likely, while lockdown might lure some to invest in an e-bike, it may simply have modified our desires – and be pushing them more rapidly towards eco car choices.  

Fleet analysts at Venson Automotive Solutions surveyed company car and business drivers, discovering a 45 per cent surge in drivers now considering a shift to electric. Already, March registrations for EVs jumped by 197.4 per cent. 

“The public would like to see more done by government,” said Venson. “This includes further investment in charging infrastructure, introduction of more Clean Air Zones in major cities and new legislation that supports businesses to move to fully electric company car or commercial vehicle fleets in the next five years.” 

Less congested roads have already led to quicker journey times, but they may also be getting more dangerous. 

In the second half of March, London’s Met police reported the average speed of vehicles in 20mph zones had jumped to 37mph, while Ireland has witnessed a doubling in pedestrian deaths attributable to faster traffic. Speed awareness courses may soon be booming. 

Police have confirmed more extreme examples of speeding have been seen in Gloucestershire during lockdown and launched operations to remind motorists of their obligations. 

Average speed has risen by between one per cent and three percent with “more extreme examples” also increasing. Sixty five miles per hour in a 40mph zone is one example given by Gloucestershire Constabulary. 

But while many roads are temptingly open, more may be closed for good: from London to Edinburgh, temporary pedestrianisation is being enjoyed by so many that there is a growing clamour for permanent no-go areas, including Gloucester and Cheltenham. 

The Manchester Evening News has been calling for swathes of the city centre to remain traffic-free – for good. The city’s Albert Square will soon be car-free and more areas are expected to follow. 

So when will we use our car, post-Corona? Don’t forget your hols. While 88 per cent of Brits historically up sticks, says ABTA, a UK staycation is broadly anticipated to be the top option, with families automatically seeking their cars as a protective bubble for travel, enabling access to destinations that are less populated. 

City breaks may not revive quickly, but as property consultants at Savills predict: “in more isolated rural areas, Airbnb is likely to be pretty resilient.” 

Meanwhile getting anywhere by air may prove exorbitant. As airlines slash jobs and flights, the age of the cheap-seat package looks over, with travel by car anticipated in the travel industry to see strong demand. 

Eurotunnel, which has continued to run up to four trains per hour, points out that it offers a format for travel that is well suited to respect for travellers staying separate, while popular gite rental sites such as already offer allocation on rental this summer.  

Post lockdown, your car might have become an office on the driveway (one in three home workers have used their cars as a driveway office apparently), but be ready for it to be the best ticket for freedom.