The Wuhan Effect? An interesting distraction

by Greg Marsden

Traffic levels in Wuhan post lockdown have bounced back to greater than before – The Wuhan Effect is beginning to creep into our professional discourse. Really?

In 25 years of working in transport planning no-one has ever pointed Wuhan out to me and told me that I should be re-thinking UK transport planning on the basis of what is happening there. I’m not saying there are not interesting things to look at in everyday Wuhan. Though, it is one of the less likely places to go thinking about policy transfer.

Why not compare Wuhan to UK cities?

Of course, there is interest in learning from what happens as lockdowns are released. But why might Wuhan actually be the wrong place for us to think about in terms of post-Coronavirus response? Overall, car ownership is less than 200 per 1000 people in China. Even though Wuhan is the ‘motor city’, it is not going to be much higher than that there. The people owning cars in Wuhan will be the richer part of the population and those who have access to ‘Government cars’ for official business – and there is a lot of state business in Chinese cities.

Further differences include really quite different living patterns, with people migrating to big cities and needing to get back to their families. If car traffic has bounced back it may well be that it is the more protected group in society getting back to moving around. What has happened to total person movement levels? What has happened to employment?

I am also amazed that we get drawn into the Wuhan data point rather than thinking about what we already know. The data below shows what happened to traffic levels after the Global Financial Crisis. Four years of reductions in traffic on UK roads. The Office for Budget Responsibility have already said that the impacts of the shutdown will be bigger on the UK and the global economy than the Global Financial Crisis. Why would this recession be somehow bullet proof and see traffic growth?

Traffic levels before, during and after the Global Financial Crisis

What to do instead

Then we should look at the reality of the situation. One of the arguments for the Wuhan Effect is that people will be worried about using public transport. That is a discussion for another day. The long term impacts of this on the future of public transport is really important. However, traffic growth implies that people will not use public transport because they are social distancing (and perhaps because they will not be allowed to limit crowding). They will drive instead.

However, if social distancing is in play on public transport then it is in play everywhere. The activities that people would have been travelling to will also be restricted because of social distancing. In Sweden for example cinemas are open but with a maximum of 50 occupants per screening in a large theatre. Social distancing will mean substantially fewer people will be able to access activities. There is not the space for life to be like it was before. Journeys will have to reduce and so, even with fewer people on public transport, car traffic should also be lower.

We may have more to learn from our closest European neighbours where economic conditions and travel behaviours are more similar. We should also actively seek to understand the different pathways open to us. Lower traffic levels and a requirement for greater social distancing reinforce the need for greater space for walking and cycling. This is the argument for roadspace reallocation which some places have already seized on.

There are choices ahead of us. We should be wary of a growth in the numbers of people finding the car relatively more attractive. However, that is not the same as people driving more. We should make the most of the conditions of lower traffic levels to rebalance the limited space we have to people rather than vehicles and to promote a more equitable plan for recovery.

How we’re working to shape the agenda

As for what actually happens, I’m delighted to announce that I will be working with Professor Jillian Anable and various colleagues from across the UK to deliver a research programme which both tracks and shapes the behavioural responses to the social distancing restrictions and lockdown measures. More on that to follow. To keep up to date on our research and opportunities subscribe to our newsletter