How COVID-19 will change your commute
How the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we work and move around town.
As isolation ends and post-pandemic life beckons, a tricky choice looms for many urban commuters: should we return to public transport? Is it okay to add yet another car to congested roads? Or could we continue the healthy cycling and walking habits that helped ease the lockdown blues?
Social commentator and demographer Bernard Salt says hygiene hyper-vigilance will be a top-of-mind consideration in public spaces for the foreseeable future. “If you’re paranoid about getting on a train at Cranbourne and spending an hour in a packed carriage jammed against god knows who with god knows what infection, you’ll take the car instead,” he says.
It’s a prospect that Councillor Nicholas Reece, chair of planning for the City of Melbourne, fears could undo decades of work to encourage commuters to take up public and shared transport options. “If there is a vast shift back towards the private motor vehicle, our current transport systems will not cope,” he says. “It’s not feasible to get a million people into the central city each day in a car.
A recent report from consultancy firm WSP Australia recommends a staged approach to distancing on public transport, from ‘strict’ to ‘moderate’ then ‘relaxed’. All scenarios would significantly lower passenger capacity, and timetables would need to be amended to allow for longer stops so commuters could enter and exit safely. Managing space at stops and stations presents another significant challenge.
As individual households make personal choices, governments and planning authorities are grappling with the bigger picture. Stuart Outhred, RACV’s senior planner for mobility futures, says the COVID-19 lockdown of the past two months presents an unprecedented opportunity to take stock and make positive change.
“As a state, we’ve been struggling to keep our head above water for a decade or so because of the rapid pace of population growth. And when you’re struggling to keep your head above the water, it’s really difficult to work out where you’re swimming to,” he says.
“What if this is a possibility to look at where we’re at as a city, and chart if we want that particular future, what has to change and how do we get there? It’s very rare that you get the chance like this to stop and take stock.”
He says it’s hard to predict how our roads will look in the coming weeks as a range of factors are likely to affect traffic volumes. On the one hand there could be fewer people commuting as many continue working from home at least some days of the week. On the other hand those who might have previously caught a train, tram or bus to work may choose to use their car to avoid the risk of infection on public transport. “When you couple that with cheaper petrol and also as we’re coming into winter, there’s a few points that are a potential tailwind for more car use. The sum of those parts is really unclear at the moment.”
For commuters keen to preserve social distancing, there are viable alternatives. Monash University professor of transport engineering Graham Currie says numerous opportunities for change in commuting habits could add up to “a noticeable difference” across the various networks.
Some may choose to continue to embrace their ‘corona commute’ – a journey from the breakfast table to the kids’ school desk, on to the queue for the kitchen coffee machine, and finally to the study ‘office’ in time for the day’s first video conference.