The government needs to keep up spending on public transport, even though its usage has plummeted during the Covid pandemic, a government adviser has said.
Commuter numbers could drop by a quarter due to more home working, Sir John Armitt, head of the National Infrastructure Commission, said.
But the government need to “hold their nerve” to see if there’s a bounce back.
This was important for sustainability reasons, the official adviser on big investments said.
Sir John added that the Commission’s modelling indicated there could be an ongoing hit to passenger numbers of 25% from fewer commuters returning to offices after the pandemic.
“If you want to avoid congestion in the future, if you want to stick to your zero carbon, then you need to get people back on public transport.
“Therefore for the government, it’s going to be a case of continuing to ensure that public transport is available, whether it’s the trains or whether it’s the buses, so that people can make use of it as and when they feel relaxed to do so,” Sir John told the BBC.
He said despite their modelling, the government should “hold their nerve” and wait to see actual data on the return to work, and give people the opportunity to make choices over the next two or three years.
Assuming changes that could materialise in the coming months were permanent, they could damage city centres, which have driven economic activity.
He said that the rise of home working and Zoom meetings did not alter the benefits of investing in high-speed rail lines.
Historic underinvestment in rail capacity remained the fundamental reason for HS2, Sir John said.
During the pandemic, the government has underpinned practically the entire rail system.
The latest figures showed there were fewer than a third of the normal level of rail journeys in the last quarter of last year.
Sir John also said that city centres would change as a result of new ways of working, and that “shops and offices could be replaced to a degree by housing” and that “could be really beneficial”.