In a world of transport uncertainty, Ian Briggs analyses the vital role communications will play to help steer a clear course
Active Travel seems to be the latest lockdown label of choice. However, unlike some monikers (think ‘unprecedented’ and ‘Dominic Cummings’) it is a phrase that we are unlikely to become tired of hearing.
It is in fact nothing new. A term used to describe making journeys by ‘physically active means’, like walking, cycling or running, it has been in use for years but has come back to prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is because as our use of cars, buses and trains has diminished as the majority of us work from home, coupled with an increase in the levels of lockdown exercise, thoughts have turned to what the future of travel will look like in our daily lives in the ‘new normal’ (another overused phrase).
Whatever one makes of the effectiveness of government communications during the lockdown, the message to avoid using public transport unless ‘absolutely necessary’ has been clear. In turn, increased safety fears around using buses and trains are commonplace and there is a growing expectation that a return to a reliance on cars, coupled with a short to medium-term spike in active travel, will become the norm as this fear spreads further.
As a consequence, policymakers face a dilemma. In the last few years alone, much work has been done to increase active travel, with increased cycle lane provision to new developments encouraging cycling and running with secure storage and shower rooms.
Alongside this, huge amounts of money have been invested in transport systems and infrastructure (and continue to be so) at a local level to encourage public transport use, led by proactive local authorities such as Leeds City Council and organisations including the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.
But we now stand at a tipping point and one which, if it goes the wrong way, could undo all this previous good work of getting the balance right between the different modes of travel. So, what must be done to ensure those responsible for transport infrastructure in our towns and cities get it right and all the investment continues to be worth it?
Undoubtedly communications are going to be key. Audiences need to be taken on a journey in a proactive and consistent way. These audiences differ with competing priorities. There is no one size fits all. From the everyday commuter to employers, retailers, business owners affected along key routes, transport providers and educators, key messages have to land to the right people, at the right time in the right place and in the right way.
A two-way conversation will be vital to ensure not only people feel their voices are heard but so these voices can help shape future transport policy as travel trends become more defined.
It is an approach Aberfield knows works through our experience on Connecting Leeds, a programme of transport improvements in the key corridors of the city with associated benefits for journey times, service reliability and the environment. We were appointed in 2018 by travel planning consultants, WSP, to help them deliver an integrated marketing and communications campaign centred on public engagement.
Based on audience research at that time, it was clear that all communications around bus travel – a key component of the programme - needed to have a strong human element. Encouraging a range of stakeholders to ‘buy in’ to the improved bus corridors and appreciate the benefits it will bring was key.
Alongside this, a responsive and flexible programme of communications tactics, including video, leaflets and posters, online consultations, PR and social media enabled a two-way conversation that encouraged engagement and feedback to be developed.
Fast forward to today and much of this holds true. If anything, it is even more vitally important for clear communications because of the unknowns we’re living through. And, it’s an approach that will help ensure people aren’t left behind.