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Back to work: How commuting can respond to COVID-19

Back to work: How commuting can respond to COVID-19

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Tony Travers of LSE said recently “Getting people out of their homes and back to work may prove especially challenging in Britain, precisely because citizens have learned they need to remain at home to stay safe, protect NHS workers and save lives.”

We've been putting together a plan for a gradual transitioning from working from home to working safely in our studio. We have found that we can function with home working but that there are advantages to working together and areas of studio life that we miss. We need to blend the two ways of working and recognise that in the future, this may become the new normal.

Key to working in our studio will understanding how we can safely get to work. When planning for this we have worked on the assumption that other business will have employees travelling to work, but as with us only a proportion of their workforce will be doing so, to enable social distancing in the workplace. In practice this may mean only a half or a third of regular pre covid-19 travel will take place. We can also assume that there will be no tourists, a bigger impact on London travel than other places.

Last year we conducted a major survey on commuter attitudes in 10 global cities and we have been able to incorporated these results into our understanding. We are also able to use our knowledge of how our own staff commute to work gained during our regular staff commuting surveys. We know how long our staff travel for and what modes they use, we also know who is within reasonable walking or cycling zones.

Our proposal is broken down as follows:

  • No cars will be allowed into the congestion charge zone from 7:00 -10:30. After 10.30 only cars with 3 or more people will be allowed. A new car sharing app would make this possible and reflects existing schemes in other cities across the globe.
  • In London buses are a primary mode of travel, more so than in other places, and are especially prominent for key workers. To maintain safe social distancing these will be supplemented with coaches, with the various bus companies working together to address capacity on the most popular routes.
  • More space will be given to cycling and walking and greening the city. In London the cycle super-highway schemes are being pushed forward and temporary cycle lanes set up.
  • Cycle hire will be free.
  • Electric scooters will be permitted, with legislation quickly changing to allow this throughout our cities.
  • Commuters will have to pre-book their travelling time whether by train, bus or tube. Slots will be in 15-minute periods from 7:00 till 10:30 for the morning peak and 16:00 till 19:00 for the evening. Already a feature on long distance journeys, this will help manage demand on the commuter routes and allow space on the trains for social distancing.
  • Encouraging commuters to stagger their start and end times will help manage demand and continue to push forward the flexible working already started with our move to home working.


  • Additional staff will be needed at the stations to manage the passengers. We have seen this in operation at supermarkets and shops, with staff redeployed for queue management and offering guidance and information.
  • Passengers will need to be managed in groups into the station, onto the platforms and onto the trains, employing methodologies from sports and event crowd management.
  • Additional buskers and entertainers will be engaged handing out masks to anyone who might have forgotten and encouraging passengers to use the track and trace app currently being trailed by the Government.
  • Cleaning will be paramount, with escalator handrail cleaners top and bottom, and the barriers will be left open to avoid unnecessary delays and crowding.
  • There will be some stations which discharge passengers only, this works well where stations are close together. For examples in London on the Jubilee Line, Waterloo Station could be made exit only with passengers alighting at Southwark or Westminster. Other stations such as London Bridge lend themselves well to a one-way system enabling social distancing for reduced numbers. On quieter stations alternate doors on trains and tubes would allow passengers on or off with areas on the platform designated accordingly.

These measures need to be implemented thoughtfully with an understanding of how they fit with the current design of the station. Simple and elegant wayfinding will be key to avoid passenger confusion and maintain a quality of commute in these challenging times. If implemented well these measures can pave the way for long term changes that benefit the planet.

It is interesting that the very things that attract us to cities and workplaces, the social gatherings, exchange of ideas, talks, debates, theatre, cinema, galleries and museums are no longer available to us.

Without them what is the city? Thinking further ahead we should consider that this is not a one off hiatus. We should plan for this happening again, next time maybe worse. We should plan our transport and our cities and our economy to build in this resilience and to give us a choice of where to live, work and relax. If we plan properly it will work, it could even be fun and will make the world a better place.

Let’s look back on 2020 as the year a virus made us stay home to reappraise how we live and to make the city better.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.