Importance of reliable and efficient transport to the North of England’s businesses revealed in new research

Transport for the North (TfN) data show the challenges and opportunities for the region’s businesses when it comes to employee travel choices, delivery reliability, and decarbonisation

Businesses across the North of England have spoken out on the importance of reliable and efficient transport connections in a new report, highlighting the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on commuting and logistics, their thoughts on the challenges of climate change; and how inefficient road and rail networks are constraining their ambitions.

The User Insight Phase 3 report, commissioned by TfN and delivered by SYSTRA, reveals the latest transport-related behaviours and attitudes of Northern businesses, covering key issues such as remote working, demand for deliveries, decarbonisation, and the importance of investing in the region’s infrastructure.

It highlights the shifts in travel patterns during the Covid-19 pandemic and the longer-term impacts; uncovers thoughts on electric vehicles and greening operations; and reveals how a lack of connectivity is creating uncertainty.

On average, businesses expect time spent remote working to remain above pre-pandemic levels in the short term – but estimates differ significantly by industry:

Home-working has increased significantly during the pandemic (almost three-times the time spent working from home compared to before the pandemic).

Businesses anticipate that the amount of time spent working remotely is likely to remain above pre-pandemic levels, at least in the next two to three years.

However, businesses within more ‘goods-intensive’ sectors (those typically more reliant on receiving or delivering physical goods, such as manufacturing, construction, wholesale and retail trade, and transportation and storage) were generally less likely to anticipate high levels of remote working post-pandemic, while some service-based sectors such as health and social work also displayed continued demand for commuting trips.

The growing prevalence of virtual meetings is expected to reduce demand for business trips for many businesses:

Many businesses indicated that in future, longer journeys to meetings will be less likely. The growing reliance on virtual meetings was suggested to be a key contributor to this trend, said the report.

However, some types of businesses were more likely to suggest that the number of business trips they expect to undertake in the next two to three years from now will stay the same or increase compared to pre-pandemic levels, namely more goods-intensive businesses, and younger businesses (those operating at their main site for five years or less).

Businesses anticipate continued growth in demand for transport of goods – many expect to receive and send more deliveries in coming years compared to levels seen during the pandemic:

Two in five businesses where transport of goods constituted a significant proportion of their overall business travel needs, say they receive goods deliveries on a daily basis, most often directly from suppliers who are mostly based within the North.

Just under a third of goods received by these businesses are delivered by couriers or delivery companies, while a quarter are delivered by their own company vehicles.

Almost half of these businesses despatch/deliver goods on a daily basis using their own vehicles, and one-third despatch goods daily via couriers or delivery companies.

Many businesses would like to do more to decarbonise their transport use – however interventions will be needed to tackle current barriers experienced by businesses, the report found.

Most businesses rely on cars or vans to facilitate commuting journeys, travel for business meetings, and for transporting goods.

Three-quarters of employees were estimated to be commuting to work using a private car or van pre-pandemic.

While the majority of businesses didn’t anticipate changes in employees’ use of private modes for commuting in future, (particularly in goods-intensive sectors).

Businesses also anticipate that travelling by private car will remain the dominant mode for future business trips.

While some businesses had introduced measures such as showers and cycle storage, or locating their main sites close to public transport to encourage use of alternative modes, others generally felt that it would not be possible for businesses to reduce car usage without improved public transport as a viable alternative.

Among those businesses which had a company vehicle or fleet of vehicles, the proportion of vehicles that are electric or hybrid was low (6%), with around half of businesses suggesting that to upgrading their vehicle fleets to electric/hybrid vehicles. The barriers most commonly faced related to the cost of purchasing or running such vehicles, the range for which these vehicles can run, and inadequate vehicle charging infrastructure.

A quarter of businesses which had a company vehicle/fleet said that increased financial incentives would encourage them to switch to electric or hybrid vehicles.

A notable share of businesses anticipate benefits from improved road and rail transport in the North – particularly those reliant on transport of goods, and those looking to establish or grow their business:

Feedback from many businesses revealed that their activities are constrained by congestion on the road network and the unreliability, cost, and lack of convenience of rail and bus travel.

One in five businesses anticipated that they would travel more frequently to business meetings by road if journey time reliability was improved on the road network, while 15% said they would make more goods deliveries by road in the same scenario.

Businesses which have a greater need for receiving or delivering physical goods were particularly likely to say they would make more deliveries if road journey time was improved.

Around one in five businesses stated that they would make more journeys via rail as a result of TfN’s proposed rail improvements.

Medium and large businesses were more likely to anticipate benefits relating to efficiency – such as increased productivity due to faster journey times, and reduced business costs due to more predictable journey times. By contrast, businesses which tend to be younger, or have fewer employees, were more likely to anticipate benefits relating to business growth – such as gaining improved access to new suppliers from further afield, and opening up new business opportunities in other areas of the UK.

Martin Tugwell, Chief Executive at Transport for the North, said: “Improving our transport networks will enable a vibrant business community across our region, supporting jobs and economic growth for generations to come.

“This incredibly useful data uncovers a number of key opportunities and shows the importance of understanding the user perspective. Investing now in our road and rail networks, freight links, decarbonisation initiatives and active travel schemes, will make ‘levelling up’ real for people and businesses. Better connectivity will enable easier, more reliable access to jobs and new markets, and instil confidence and resilience for the future.

“It also highlights the differing challenges for urban and rural businesses; small and large companies, showing that local insight into what our region needs is an essential piece of the puzzle when making decisions on which projects to invest in at which moments.

“It’s clear that our region’s businesses have strong ambitions, and need the appropriate infrastructure to support them. Through the region’s 11 Local Enterprise Partnerships that sit on our Board, we are representing our businesses and speaking with ‘one voice’ on how they stand to benefit from a sustained pipeline of investment in transport.

“We are using research like this, and a whole host of other important projects underway at Transport for the North, to inform and sense-check transport investment priorities. Our Northern Transport Charter sets out our offer to Government as to how we can work together to use this insight to deliver the New North.”

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