How COVID-19 will change your commute

Overlooking the city as the sun goes down.

Steve Colquhoun

Posted May 11, 2020

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.

Commuter browsing her phone on public transport.

Social distancing plays a vital role in keeping everyone COVID safe.


Bernard Salt estimates work-from-home rates jumped from around a steady five per cent of the workforce to as many as 30 to 35 per cent in recent months. Many inevitably will return to the office, but he believes up to 15 per cent may choose to embrace regular, ongoing home-based working arrangements.

“It’s a turning point,” he says. “During the Second World War, women had to do all of the jobs because all the men were at war. And what that did was sow the seed of thinking that women can have a different role.

“Sometimes through adversity, when a population is forced to do something, they take the bits that make a real difference and hang onto them in the post-traumatic-event world. And that's what I think we'll see.”

If working from home is unworkable and public transport inevitable, Nicholas Reece suggests workers could seek to stagger shift times with colleagues. “Small changes to people’s start and finish times can deliver huge benefits in terms of efficiency for the transport system,” says Nicholas Reece. “It may mean people can use public transport and maintain social distancing.”

Varying working hours to avoid peak-hour crowding is nothing new for Bernard Salt. “My preferred response, even before (isolation), is to work odd hours,” he says. “I live in the eastern suburbs and will be at my desk in Docklands at five in the morning. I like to work between five and about two, and then go home and have an hour of sleep. It certainly works.” 

During weeks in lockdown, many Victorians rediscovered the simple joy of cycling or walking as they sought safe outdoor activities, and Bernard believes some will use this experience as a springboard for a new commuting routine.

“The reality is that the majority will just revert, go to their gyms or whatever they do, or just not do anything,” says Bernard. “But I think there’s a stickability factor there, that many people will continue with that physical exercise going forward.”

COVID-19 has been a dark moment, but if there is a silver lining, it is hopefully that we use it as an opportunity to make some long-term changes.

The challenge for planners and policy makers is how to facilitate this increased uptake of alternative forms of transport. RACV has thrown its support behind plans by the City of Melbourne to temporarily remove parking spaces on some streets in the CBD in order to widen footpaths and enable greater social distancing as people start to return to the city once government restrictions are eased.

And Stuart Outhred encourages municipalities across the state to consider similar measures. “Creating a safe street environment for people to travel by bike or walk more often has a lot of merit. We are really keen to see how different councils can apply the quick-build approach and support healthy transport options going forward.”  

City of Melbourne councillor Nicholas Reece says the Italian city of Milan has already converted 35 kilometres of roadway to cycling and pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. In Dublin, Ireland, some street parking has been reallocated to create wider footpaths, allowing pedestrians to achieve more effective social distancing. Auckland continues a long-running policy of ‘tactical urbanism’, using pop-up infrastructure to alter footpaths and bike lanes to help with distancing and allowing extra space for queuing outside shops.

“COVID-19 has been a dark moment, but if there is a silver lining, it is hopefully that we use it as an opportunity to make some long-term changes,” says Nicholas.

“In the world’s most liveable city, we can always do better. That’s why we need to come out of this smarter, better and more resilient than ever.”