2020, Despair, Recovery and Consolidation. Part One

Throughout 2020 we have been monitoring the data flows across our systems and infrastructure, analysing and reporting the impact of the UK’s COVID19 management and response. We like many have shared this data with the DFT to assist in their modelling of transport usage and motorist behaviour.

ZatPark is used by private operators and local authorities to manage an estimated 33% of off-street parking sites across the UK. This provides our team with access to data sets which can be used to demonstrate the changing behaviour of drivers across the country as the pandemic progressed over the past nine months, we refer to this anonymised holistic data set as the ZatNation.

You can read our earlier thoughts from way back in July about the recovery of the UK parking sector – https://zatpark.com/blog/parking-sector-recovery.

This is the first of a two-part feature, exploring what has happened since July and to what extent have our thoughts changed. Part Two will be published tomorrow.

The graph below is a familiar update to our previous example, of data infrastructure activity below, you will see it plots three sources of information:

  • The Blue Line shows the Office for National Statistics (ONS) data on the overall volumes of all road traffic on UK A roads and Motorways.
  • The Red Line shows the volume of ANPR reads across our infrastructure
  • The Yellow line shows the volume of enforcement actions across the Zatnation.

Each line represents a percentage of activity relative to the same day of the week for the first week of March 2020. This gives a proportionate basis to compare the three data sets. You can see how ONS traffic flows for the main part of the year have been down from their early March levels, meaning there are physically less vehicle movements across the UK road network, the Zatpark ANPR read volumes and the volume of Enforcement Actions through our system have generally been proportionately lower than the ONS data.

As the lockdown bedded in in May, we can see the gap between the lines for the ONS data and our own Zatnation data points increase. The ONS numbers started to pull away from Zatnation, recovering back towards usual volumes at a quicker rate. This can partly be attributed to operators having taken advice from us earlier in the lockdown to turn off ANPR sites within the system to save paying for features that were not going to be utilised. Whilst the number of ANPR sites has now returned to pre-March levels, the difference in speed of recovery can also be attributed to changes in behaviour with non-essential retail and leisure closed.

The car Symbol on the graph shows the point at which lockdown measures where reduced, with the government confirming that individuals and families could travel as far as they wished as long as they complied with social distancing guidelines, this caused significant travel cross country to many beaches, beauty spots or open spaces. You will note how the pattern of ONS data points changes at this moment.

As we progress towards the summer and the end of the school year, we saw a significant increase in weekend ONS traffic (Point A on the graph). This was the first full weekend post-lockdown and also when The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Restrictions came into effect on 12th July meaning outdoor swimming pools, nail bars, spas, beauty salons, massage parlours, tattoo parlours, body and skin piercing services could reopen for the first time.

However, whilst there was conceivably a rush to the coiffeur and the latent demand for tanning and piecing, the rapid increase is more likely due to the earlier traditional summer holiday in Scotland and also families across the UK exasperated by lockdown and home-schooling choosing to make the most of the summer months and reduced lockdown rules before the dark and dank nights of Autumn ahead, with “schools” officially breaking up around Friday 17th July.

Point A is also the point in time when the recovery of ONS volumes starts to plateau and the Zatnation data starts to close the gap back to its pre-March norms.

With many spending the traditional summer holiday period in the UK, we can see an extended weekend peak in ONS traffic volumes, perhaps around holiday changeover days or as people making the most of their weekends to visit beauty spots and open spaces. On 25th July, The National Trust warned it was seeing record levels of litter in parts of the Peak District, as people flocked to beauty spots.

The euphoric release for many of returning to a sense of relative normality was balanced by increasing cases of antisocial behaviour and in particular, that of many motorists. The media was even asking for enforcement to take place.

August saw not only the eat out to help out bonanza (point B on the Graph), but an increase in enforcement actions recovering to 80% of their pre-lockdown level as landowners began allowing enforcement, even to a reduced level. Indeed, the latest footfall figures for non-food stores from Ipsos Retail Performance showed that in August, confidence in “masked-up shopping” and UK staycations boosted bricks and mortar shopper numbers.

Dr Tim Denison, director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance, said: “August is usually a quieter month than July, but the reverse was true this year.

“Weekly footfall levels in non-food shops rose in each of its four weeks, reflecting both the growing confidence in masking up and going into shops, and the greater number of people deciding to stay in the UK this summer rather than venturing abroad on holiday. Retailers also played a significant part by offering heavy promotions to encourage shoppers back into stores.

As the majority of schools reopen to pupils from 1st September (point C on the Graph), we saw the return to normality for many with the first school runs of the year alongside the government’s short lived “return to the office” initiative. We still saw high weekend peaks of overall road traffic above the base level pre-lockdown, but like a switch we see ANPR read volumes plateauing and steadying at around 90% of March 2020 from 1st September as people return to non-leisure journeys and more usual lifestyle patterns. The ONS later stated that for the week commencing 7th September, 62% of workers travelled to work during that week.

Things were starting to look and feel more “usual”. Speaking to customers in this period, many were confident we had seen the worst, many felt that their relationships with their landowners had improved throughout the lockdown period and that there was a genuine understanding of the need for enforcement to manage parking behaviours. However, like all microscopic contagious diseases, COVID-19 was working away in the background. On 22nd September in a televised address to the nation, Boris Johnson called for people to exercise resolve and discipline to combat the virus as infection rates grew, in particular amongst young adults, warning that further measures may be required and that the United Kingdom has reached “a perilous turning point” as he announced new restrictions for England that could last for as long as six months.

When the leisure curfew kicks in on 24th September (Point D on the graph) we see a meaningful drop in overall traffic, however, the ANPR reads volumes and Enforcement actions across the Zatnation of sites stays relatively static. The regulations affected a wide range of businesses, from restaurants, bars, public houses, social clubs, casinos, bingo halls, bowling alleys, cinemas, theatres, concert halls, amusement arcades, funfairs (indoors or outdoors), theme parks and adventure parks. The plateauing of Zatnation data at this time suggests that shortening operating hours has only a minimal impact on associated parking activity and that landowners continued to choose to enforce against contraventions.

As of 2nd October, around a quarter of the population of the
United Kingdom, about 16.8 million people, are living under local lockdowns. This includes 23% of people in England, 76% of people in Wales and 32% of people in Scotland. As the R number rises to between 1.3 and 1.6, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggests the rise in COVID cases in the UK is due to “fraying of people’s discipline” over the summer. Commentators however suggested it may be due to poor management, lack of leadership and trust in scientific advice, and perhaps the nature of the British tabloid press.

We then see the data starting to get “messy”. Boris Johnson unveils the new three-tier system of restrictions for England, taking effect from 14th October. (Marked by a tiered triangle on the graph) Areas are grouped into one of three risk categories – medium, high, or very high. Medium areas are subject to the rule of six and the 10pm curfew, high areas have restrictions on indoor meetings, but groups of six can continue to meet in outdoor settings, and very high areas will see the closure of businesses such as pubs and casinos, but not restaurants. The Liverpool City region is the only area to be placed in the very high category.

We feel that the Zatnation data volumes at this point represent a good indication of the “new normal”, combining the transition to and normalising of remote working and the changing retail landscape. With numbers working from home settling at 24% of people in employment during October, down from 46.6% at its peak in April 2020, the 1970s utopian dream of telecommuting may, for many, have become nearer a reality. With 26% of people in employment stated when asked that they plan to continue working from home permanently either full or part time, the change in behaviour will have an impact not only on peak traffic flows across the road network but also on the parking choices people make, many increasing the use of local centres rather than regional hubs and parking for shorter periods throughout the day. When this change is coupled with the accelerated redefining of the high street and wider retail sector, normality between 80 and 90% of pre-COVID volumes is a good position to build from as parking management realigns with changing demands.

Part Two is available here – https://zatpark.com/blog/2020-…

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