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Census Data Reveals Impact of the Pandemic on Commuting

Census Data Reveals Impact of the Pandemic on Commuting
28 June 2024

Shifts in commuting patterns driven by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to impact urban planning, according to the latest census data.


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A report from planning specialist Lichfields examines the 2021 Census Origin-Destination commuting dataset, which unsurprisingly shows significant shifts in commuting patterns driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the data was taken during the UK’s third national lockdown.

Report Co-Author Ciaran Gunne-Jones, Senior Director and Head of Economics at Lichfields, explains: “We are regularly reminded by statisticians that surveys represent a snapshot in time. The last Census perhaps represents the ultimate case study for the difficulties of inferring trends from a snapshot in time.

“To what extent is this snapshot still a reflection of the realities of commuting in 2024, where COVID-related travel restrictions are long in the rear-view mirror and with many people returning to the office, for a few days a week at least?”

The Census Origin-Destination datasets record the usual place of residence and workplace location of those in work and are used to show typical commuting patterns. The Census recorded 9 million additional people working from home in 2021, a 300 per cent increase from 2011. Major cities, particularly London, saw the most significant reductions in commuting, while rural areas were less affected.

More recent data from the Department for Transport and the ONS show a recovery in commuting trips and a rise in hybrid working. As of October 2023, rail journeys had recovered to 80-90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Higher-income and professional occupations are more likely to adopt home or hybrid working, while lower-income occupations continue to travel to work regularly.

For FMs, the shift towards hybrid work requires planning for peak commuting days, typically mid-week. Ciaran added; “There is a need to accommodate a mid-week peak workday population into future planning policy. As physical infrastructure and employment land supply cannot flex over the course of a week, we must still plan for the peak and the geography of the flows associated with this.

“This underlines the geographic variability in the trends, with London disproportionately affected compared to northern regions of England, which should be reflected in approaches to the preparation of evidence bases.

“Furthermore, at this stage, it is impossible to say whether the trend of returning to the workplace will continue in the coming years; planning for a post-pandemic scenario of increased home-working and hybrid working may be myopic if travel patterns continue to bounce back.

“In conclusion, while the 2021 Census provides an invaluable snapshot of commuting patterns during an extraordinary period, planners and policymakers must approach its data with caution. The landscape of commuting is still evolving, and flexible, adaptive strategies will be essential to meet the changing needs of our workforce and economy.”

Picture: a photograph from the main concourse at London Liverpool Street. Image Credit: Unsplash

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 28 June 2024


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