Gary Liddle AO on COVID-19 and transport
Gary Liddle AO has had a long, influential career in the transport sector, something we delved into in our 2018 interview, Gary Liddle AO: Transport professional.
He is also the Chairman of the iMOVE Board of Directors, so it’s only natural that I approached Gary for this series, and it’s no surprise at all that he has some observations to make on this current situation as regards transport and the pandemic.
What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?
I am fortunate enough to have a house at Torquay, where my wife and I relocated to live just before the lockdown, as it was becoming apparent that working from home was likely to be the new norm for some time. It has been very pleasant being able to work from a room that has an outlook over the ocean and (sad to say) much better internet access than where we normally live in Melbourne. Waking to the sound of cockatoos in the morning, being able to walk along the beach or go for a surf have all made it a much more enjoyable location to practice our social distancing.
The roads are so much quieter here and Easter, when Torquay is normally bustling with life associated with the Bells Beach surf event, was unbelievably quiet. A bit similar to John Wall’s observation in his article, there seem to be more people and dogs walking by then cars! However, while the shopping centre and roads are generally quiet, the building activity in the rapidly growing residential areas continues apace, with the need for deliveries of construction materials continuing.
Clearly delivery businesses are booming, whether they be parcel or take-away food deliveries. This has been a major change, mostly in off-peak times, that I imagine is likely to continue. While takeaway food deliveries may reduce as people can visit restaurants and bars again, I think that the current circumstances have further accelerated the trend that was already happening with parcel deliveries, and that this trend will continue.
It was also interesting to observe traffic today, a beautiful, sunny autumn day on the first weekend after restrictions eased. Definitely more traffic on the road, noticeable queues of traffic at intersections and fewer car parking spaces available. How quickly are things going to tend back to the pre-COVID-19 normal?
While I am not missing the travel involved in working and am becoming much more adept at using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business, there have been occasions when the tasks being undertaken remotely have been significantly more difficult. A project review without being able to inspect the project or interact in person with those delivering it was particularly challenging. We seem to have all found the means of making remote meetings work reasonably effectively. However, there will always be a need for people to meet face-to-face and the transport system that facilitates those meetings.
What changes would you like to see in transport when the world rights itself post-pandemic?
Never waste a good crisis as the saying goes. We have seen a massive reduction in the load on the transport system and a change in how people are using their time. As I noted above, the number of people out walking seems to have blossomed with obvious health as well as transport benefits. Bike shops are reporting a massive increase in business. In many instances, it seems that the value people place on time has reduced and they are happy to use modes that may take a little longer. Can we lock these in, perhaps by re-allocating road space?
We have talked for years, perhaps decades, about how we could undertake more work from home. This event has certainly proven that is definitely an option – it is no longer a hypothetical. It would make a massive difference to the demands on our transport system if we could lock in some of these behaviours. One day a week work from home spread over different days would make a massive difference to both the transport system and the need for office space (perhaps I better sell those shares in a company leasing office space).
What I would hate to see post-pandemic, is a major reduction in the use of public/mass transit, as people try to isolate themselves from potential sources of the virus and be more in control of contact points. This would be a major disruptor for the transport system as a whole and result in increased congestion. It makes it even more important to stagger the days and hours when people need to commute, so that the load on public transport can be managed and social distancing measures maintained.
And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?
Without actions to lock in behavioural change we would like to continue, I think that people will drift back to what best suits them personally. If we look at how people behave following other crises such as the bushfires that we experience, history shows that individuals forget about the impacts over a period of time and previous behaviours return. Vegetation isn’t kept cleared as much, preparedness for leaving home becomes more haphazard etc.
As has been done in the City of Melbourne and other cities around the world, road space could be re-allocated now in an attempt to lock in the change to using more active transport. If there has been a preparedness to shift to modes, even though they may take a little longer, it makes sense to provide greater capacity for those modes before travel patterns revert to the old normal. I think if this action is taken, we will continue to see greater cycling and pedestrian activity in the central parts of our cities.
Will businesses reduce floor space to reduce costs but also to encourage more regular working from home, thus reducing the commuter demand for transport? I think that this is probable, as there will be an imperative for businesses to lock in lower costs and many office-based businesses have demonstrated that they can continue to operate with their employees working remotely. There are already many businesses with hot desk arrangements, which I think will be more widely implemented.
The public sector could play a leading role by staggering working days/hours to reduce the transport demand at peak times. Remembering that we don’t need the drastic reduction in travel resulting from COVID-19 to make a significant difference to the congestion we experience on our transport system.
I believe people have an innate need to interact face-to-face, but I am confident that we have all realised that we can manage our work without that being essential from a task perspective. Can we find that happy medium to achieve our need for social interaction, while locking in the benefits of remote working that we have proved can function satisfactorily? That is the billion dollar question!