The pandemic generates new research

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had enormous consequences for societies around the globe. In the transport sector, the pandemic has manifested itself in reduced demand for transport and changing travel patterns, which in turn have generated many new research questions and new opportunities.

“There is a great deal of new knowledge that needs to be developed. Recommendations, guidelines and measures aimed at reducing infection levels have resulted in behavioural changes that we need to know more about, to find out how long they will last and what it might look like as we phase in a more stable, normal situation after the pandemic,” says Tomas Svensson, Director General of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI).

“The pandemic has resulted in structural changes, particularly through digitisation. This has had an impact on how we work, commute and travel on business, as well as how we make purchases. We need more knowledge about this if we are to grasp the more long-term changes.”

Many conferences have had to be cancelled or altered over the course of the pandemic year, including the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis (SBCA) European Conference 2020, which was due to be held in Stockholm with VTI as one of the arrangers.

“Instead, we arranged a webinar on the theme of the uncertainty involved in performing cost-benefit analyses and modelling of pandemics,” says Johanna Jussila Hammes, VTI senior researcher and one of the organisers of SBCAEC.

Historic changes

One of the most obvious changes in society as a result of the pandemic is in patterns of travel.

“The changes to the travel habits and day-to-day mobility of Swedes over the past year is unprecedented in modern times and is in stark contrast to what has been achieved since the climate adaptation of the transport system has been on the agenda,” says VTI senior researcher Karin Thoresson.

Karin is leading a new research project looking into the lessons to be learned from changes to travel and behaviour as a result of measures to manage the coronavirus crisis and how these are relevant to the transition to sustainable mobility. The focus of the project is on governance, policy instruments and the characteristics of various threats to society.

Lessons that may lead to new possibilities in transitioning to a sustainable transport system are also in focus in a project in which researchers from VTI will be closely examining the impact of the pandemic on freight traffic.

“The crisis is causing changes to goods flows and conditions. By describing and explaining these, we have a unique opportunity to learn lessons from the crisis, as certain behavioural changes may present new opportunities from a sustainability perspective,” says Jenny Karlsson, Senior Research Leader at VTI.

Opportunities are also the theme of the recently launched anthology Omstart för kollektivtrafiken– idéer för en hållbar framtid [Rebooting Public Transport: Ideas for a Sustainable Future] from K2, Sweden's national centre for research and education on public transport. The theme of the anthology is that crises can open the way for new ideas, perspectives and solutions.

“Rather than a return to how public transport was before the pandemic, we focus on rebooting it with new ideas and solutions for a more sustainable future,” says John Hultén, Director of K2.