Graham McCabe on COVID-19 and transport
Graham McCabe is the Director, Transport Advisory at Urbis, previously in roles at Transport for NSW, City of Sydney, and the Roads and Traffic Authority of NSW.
He is an expert advisor on city-shaping transport solutions, and is therefore eminently qualified to contribute to our series of interviews with transport professionals about the impact and influence of pandemics on our transport systems and use.
What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?
While many people have been lauding the decline in congestion around the world, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the causes of congestion. Congestion is the result of the imbalance between the need to travel and trade and the price signals in the transport system (time, explicit cost, other costs).
The Sydney CBD has 206,000 managers, professionals and clerical workers (2016 census), the majority of whom are working from home on a crisis basis. These people are not shopping or buying lunch, need less cleaning, maintenance, trades. Nor are they seeing CBD pharmacists, doctors, physios etc. As a result, trains, buses and roads are empty and people are not spending money, resulting in an absence of traffic through an economic collapse. Additionally, financial insecurity (at a company and individual level) is showing up in the 46% decline in new car sales amongst other patterns.
Governments and cities are readying themselves by trying to understand physical distancing, pedestrian flows and transport capacity and how to apply it in a practical, short term (restriction easing), medium-term (until vaccine/herd immunity) and long term (post-pandemic) approaches.
Short-term responses need to focus on the lack of public transport capacity (16-25%) with physical distancing and simple things like reducing traffic signal cycle times so footpaths don’t overflow. At Urbis, we are working with local and state governments on how to measure, develop and implement responses that can be temporary, trial or permanent and their staging and implementation. For example, personal advocacy on automatic pedestrian phases at traffic signals through SCATS and STREAMS has resulted in rollout in NSW, QLD, ACT, SA, WA, VIC, TAS and NZ.
In the medium term, governments need to ensure physical distancing can be maintained (especially if there is a second wave outbreak). This means that on most footpaths there is not enough room for takeaway food queues and people to walk both ways. As a result, either the economic activity and jobs that come from outdoor dining, food takeaway, queues to enter buildings cannot take place or kerbside parking/traffic lanes need to be temporarily removed to enable people to walk on the road or queue out of the way of the footpath.
Similarly, bus speeds will need to be increased through bus lanes and priority so buses can provide more capacity with a limited number of (generally) older drivers and ensuring footpaths are not blocked by queues of people waiting for buses).
In the longer term, communities have an opportunity to decide whether the temporary and medium-term measures are made permanent, giving new forms to cities and local areas.
What changes would you like to see in transport when the world rights itself post-pandemic?
The pandemic has required office-based companies to accept that working from home is possible. While most people will return to work, with the resultant economic agglomeration effects, more people working from home regularly or having more flexible working hours can postpone the need to provide increased transport capacity allowing capital and operational funds to be allocated more efficiently.
If the temporary measures to support walking, cycling and faster on-road public transport can be maintained, supported and made permanent as cities get back towards normal, then cities move beyond the old movement/parking-based allocation of road space and can think about the value of places and spaces to the community, economy and environment while ensuring appropriate levels of movement at an appropriate speed.
And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?
Depending on the duration and severity of the medium term, we could go down two paths.
1. Less likely:
A quick return to business as usual (V-shaped recovery) could result in high demand for personal driving with inner-city people who previously used buses, trams and trains changing to walking and cycling.
The middle ring and outer suburb commuters who previously used trains and buses to access cities will get frustrated with increased congestion and either seek to work from home more or agitate for more parking and faster roads sending mode share backwards.
Under this scenario, sales, hospitality and community will also end up driving due to financial insecurity of not wanting to get sick using public transport and losing income.
2. More likely:
A slower return to business as usual (U-shaped recovery) led by businesses operating in A/B teams working from home/office and swapping will allow cities and high streets to put into place appropriate measures to support activity.
Due to the reduced demand for travel, congestion will still be lower than the “before times” and commuters will become used to the changes. With sufficient time, they will forget or accept the changes and cities can support places as well as transport.