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Flattening the post-pandemic transport curve

A sketch of a hand drawing a bridge and roadsMost of our cities are on a one-way trajectory to being choked with ever increasing traffic congestion. A simple calculation of annual population growth, coupled with our love affair with the car, results in a relatively predictable future of gridlock. Building infrastructure alone will not solve this wicked problem, but sometimes a major event or disruption presents an opportunity to try something new. That is exactly what happened when one of the world’s most densely populated cities, London, was able to cut road traffic by 15% during the 2012 Olympic Games and even managed to sustain most of that reduction after the Games.

This significant cut in road traffic was achieved despite 700 000 ticket holders moving around London on the busiest day of the Games, as companies embraced working remotely and a record-breaking 60 million passengers used the Tube for transport. The primary reason for this success? A change in travel habits. The London 2012 transport strategy saw a flattening of the peak hour that was largely sustained post-Olympics by 11% of regular London travellers. It was an opportunity to flatten the peak: the Brits took it and locked it in.

COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century pandemic, facilitating a worldwide change in travel habits . Has this created the disruption needed for a redesign of transport systems, and a chance to guide our cities to better legacy outcomes? In the space of a few short months, we have changed the conversation from where we work to how and when we work. As social distancing mandated by most governments has steeply reduced travel into and out of major cities, transport peaks have flattened on major metropolitan arterial routes all over the world.

Human behaviour has tamed one of the most expensive habits on the planet: the peak-hour commute. In a post-COVID world, will we take this opportunity to unlock the performance of our transport networks, or will we snap back to the default of peak-hour saturation and all the lost productivity and lost time that goes with it?

Changing habits

The costs of a congested daily commute go beyond the massive capital and operating costs of physical infrastructure and include the downtime of sitting in traffic, missed family and social time, productivity reductions, and environmental costs. Reports from the Grattan Institute and Infrastructure Victoria are just two of the most recent analyses of a global problem created by vast urban sprawl and the persistent gap between where people live and work.

We are observing many areas where productivity remains high and the increasing trust and efficiency has been allowed to prove itself because of a government mandated change. As road and rail systems in major cities have become significantly de-stressed, in some areas people are already marvelling at air quality improvements.

How do we keep the best elements of these silver linings when traffic increases again?

Re-building and re-imagining

We can use a period of broken habits to build new ones. What if we challenge the idea that we all must travel to a workplace every day? How many people must be at a workplace? Why does the entire workforce have to arrive and depart en masse?

A major threat to liveability in our cities is if population growth and associated transport demand outpaces infrastructure capacity. Governments around the world invest significantly in infrastructure, but often this can only be justified in response to an existing problem, creating a lag between the need and response.

In some cases, these projects cause commuters further delays and frustration until works are finished, only to have the infrastructure meet its projected peaks within a matter of months. Could COVID-19 enable a radical shift in thinking where we put more focus on the demand element of the equation? Could governments proactively work with businesses to incentivise working from home, trialling new blended working models that allow agencies to optimise infrastructure already in place rather than continuously chasing our tails?

Travel demand management often refers to four pillars of behaviour change: re-time, re-route, re-mode and reduce. If governments can incentivise businesses to shift or stagger working hours, then re-timing or reduction of trips will make public and private transport more effective. As well as working with businesses to inspire change, we’ll need a better understanding of user needs, better data, and better communication: the more information we can provide people, the better equipped they will be to make alternative transport choices.

Management strategies could include improving communication – for instance the project owners of Sydney’s Metro Tunnel use of messaging systems to let travellers know their trip is delayed or more crowded due to disruption. Another example could be a proactive app service that advises commuters if the upcoming train is full, and suggests other options – a nearby, less full bus route, or bike hire with a coffee voucher to incentivise usage. Indeed, these measures both support necessary social distancing in any transition out of COVID-19 and better utilise whole transport networks going forward.

Instinctively, we think that human behaviour drives the need for roads and railway construction, but smart infrastructure also influences human behaviour. Right now, there is an opportunity to take what we know and what we can influence about changing mobility habits and build into strategic planning, transport policy, operations and new and upgraded transport infrastructure. In doing so, we have the chance to make more efficient use of our infrastructure spend, while improving quality of life.

Some examples of how transport infrastructure will be adapted in response to the pandemic includes the New Zealand government’s plan to widen footpaths, the addition of temporary bike lanes in New York, Vancouver and Berlin, and other cities’ plans to improve cycling and walking infrastructure to help people more easily maintain social distance. These measures both support a transition out of current COVID-19 restrictions, but also a chance to influence meaningful and sustained mode shift as a legacy outcome.

The flip side

Will people want to use public transport as we ease out of COVID-19 restrictions? Will people want to squeeze onto busy trains and buses if they are concerned about potential infection? Could we see demand for private vehicles and the acceleration of AV development increase, because these options offer a more private and therefore ‘safer’ space?

Without proactively capturing this opportunity for behaviour change, we are at risk of only increasing road congestion and cementing this as the new normal. Indeed, data out of China already shows in some areas toll road usage is up by approximately 20% compared to before COVID-19.

The longer we maintain rules on self-isolation and social distancing, the more the fear of proximity to strangers will deepen and this will hit public transport. What are the incentives we could ask people to think about now? What could we ask people to think about in terms of their mobility decisions? What can governments do to help the public make proactive decisions around public and active transport?

The question of what we do post-COVID is a challenge that should not fall on the shoulders of government alone; engineers, designers, architects, town planners, financiers and land developers will have to step into the post-COVID dynamic, as will employers and employees. It will be up to us all to ensure that whatever good comes of this epidemic is not only captured in new transport infrastructure, but in the way we use it. And that will start with how we live and how we work.

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14 replies »

  1. Great read Sam. I hope you are well.
    I think the flip side raises a good point. After the London bombings in 2005, it took about 3 months for the public transport system to get back to normal patronage levels. C19 has the potential to be a much larger lag time as it impacted pretty much everyone, furthermore, with an increased uptake of working from home post C19, we could see a net reduction on all modes, but I suspect we will also see a percentage shift to solitary modes such as active (walking & Cycling) and private cars. One think is for sure, it won’t be the same as pre-C19.

    • Thanks Nial – absolutely agree. Certainly lots of challenges and uncertainties on ‘the flip side’. And really important to reflect on previous disruptions to see if there are insights or lessons from those – thanks for sharing.

      On your comment about a shift to solitary modes – perhaps a chance now to increase the focus on walking, cycling, and micro-mobility, to strive for the right balance?

  2. Does that mean demand for infrastructure including airports, major roads etc. have peaked. If it has peaked than there would be no upgrade works. These authorities would have flatten their cash flows. These may result in lesser building/construction works in future.

    However, the authorities will try to find new revenue streams and modernization/revival of their assets.

    Also, are the size of cities have peaked. Do the nations or in effect the politicians will try to build/develop new cities rather than growing only the metropolitans.

    • Thanks for your comment, Anand. Although always challenging to predict the future we will ultimately still have significant growth ahead, so there will continue to be the need for significant upgrade or new build works. However, the current disruption may have bought us some time in terms of slowing that growth in the short term. The change of habits may also allow us a chance to influence a better distribution of travel choices. Perhaps those future projects could have more of a focus on influencing better distributed travel choices rather than responding to existing problems.

      I also think your point around regional or new city growth is really important – and that’s very much already been a key priority for many governments. Perhaps the current slow of population growth presents a window to reinforce how important regional growth and connectivity is.

  3. It could definitely reduce demand which would assist in catching up with population growth.

    The construction (and consultancy) industry will definitely feel the impact if this was to result in less projects. For the industry to grow, you need to construct more this year than you did last year (ad infinitum).

    • Thanks for your comment, Blake. Perhaps there is an opportunity to scope different types of projects, or even bring forward future projects, to try to get ahead of and indeed influence population growth, rather than try to catch up with it? So still a sustained infrastructure spend, but some breathing room to re-prioritise how to spend it?

  4. Interesting article. The drive to reduced city transport demand is firmly at the feet of business owners. I’ve heard of one German organisation reducing it’s office area (now) and aiming to maintain a set percentage WFH culture into the future. Personally, i don’t think Australian business owners are that innovative. I predict that 1 month after restrictions lift, traffic will return to normal. The evidence against this is the number of businesses planning and socialising a future strategy and starting the plans now. I would love to hear of any? Maybe respondents can elaborate how their companies plan to move forward?

    • Thanks, Jeff. It’s certainly challenging to predict the future but sounds like a great proactive move by the German organisation you mention. I hope we can find opportunities to make similar steps in Australian businesses also – I’m starting to hear examples of this kind of thinking locally, which is promising.

  5. Interesting that the option travel demand substitution is not given prominence – consulting transportation engineers will not gain from more online activity I guess! Yet more proactive rolling out remote working, online retail, distance learning etc. will reduce mobility and enable decoupling the economy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Douglas. We very much intended to highlight the role of travel demand management and the option to sustain more flexible and online working practices – I agree that this presents a great opportunity for our transport networks.

  6. Thanks for the article. Food for thought.
    Perhaps part of the solution could be to move to smaller office hubs in closer proximity to your home where you can still connect to some co-workers but based on geography versus all in one space. Kind of a best of both worlds scenario. That way you can work remotely but still enjoy the company of co-workers and a productive work enviro.

  7. Sam
    A great conversation to be had.
    The restoration of public transport usage will require a more advanced degree of human safety when people are jam-packed into cylinders of confinement, be they buses, trams or trains.
    A recent story I read or heard of the airline industry that after SARS outbreak they had to invest in better air circulation and filtering of air. The claimant stated that nasty air borne particles are unlikely to spread a disease in a modern airplane. If an airline passenger caught a bug it was more likely via other means within the travel touching things within the terminal or plane or somebody directly sneezing or coughing upon. Key take away theme is that all public transport should invest in world best air condition and filtering treatment systems, apart from the obvious of cleaning every thing a passenger can touch.
    In the mean time a massive uptake of the car.

  8. This article asks some really interesting questions regarding the future of work and how it is linked to transport and transport infrastructure. I also believe that changing habits and proactive thinking will be required as we move into a post-COVID-19 world. With the COVID-19 situation, the public can now more easily conceptualise what an ‘ideal’ commute and traffic/transport lifestyle looks like, which could help facilitate an alignment of their views with the vision of transport professionals. With a few months of smooth commutes and trips fresh in our minds, we will all be able to more efficiently work together to create an exemplary post-pandemic transport lifestyle.

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