Kim Thomas on COVID-19 and transport
Kim Thomas is the Managing Director at Integrate, a company helping clients with rollouts of Intelligent Transport System and Smart City technologies.
Her take on just what the pandemic has brought home to us starts with observations about what has happened on a human level, before addressing broader themes about transport systems, that of course will also move to affect individuals.
It is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in some long-term lifestyle changes, impacting how and when we choose to travel in the future.
Key themes include:
It is now necessary to control the number of people in enclosed spaces such as lifts and offices. Social distancing will be encouraged on buses and trains as the isolation restrictions are relaxed.
Queensland Transport operators have stated that bus boarding will be through rear doors with a 1.5 metre exclusion zone set up around the bus driver.
Improved hygiene practises
Regular hand cleansing and consciously avoiding touching surfaces and your own face should reduce transmission of disease. On public facilities like buses and trains, hygiene has become much more important. It will be interesting to see how widespread hand sanitising facilities will become.
Public transport operators are implementing nightly cleans of buses and trains, which will help to an extent. Use of face masks is still contentious and would appear to mainly help with stopping people touching their faces and keeping germs from spreading when worn by a sick person.
And more than ever, if you’re sick, stay at home. The days of coming in to work unwell, and making others sick, should well and truly end.
For all those fortunate to not have lost their jobs, it has been possible to keep on working through the isolation by telecommuting. This has strained the telecommunications networks, but ongoing rollout of the NBN and competing improvements in the 5G network will mean that internet connectivity will continue to improve.
This makes it possible for office workers to choose to work one or more days per week at home, benefiting from the associated lifestyle improvements while still maintaining contact with colleagues and clients. Social distancing requirements in offices also mean that less staff will be able to be in the office each day.
The lockdown has demonstrated that It is possible to significantly reduce our impact on the environment. It remains to be seen how the community will respond to increasing pollution, having been able to see clear blue skies, clean water and resurgence of animal species.
Implications for transport
With impending return to work, many employees are concerned about using public transport, even in Queensland, where the COVID-19 statistics are very low. Public transport users will seek to make use of other modes, reducing demand on some routes. However, it is likely that inner city routes will remain in demand as many commuters will have little choice. This may mean that additional services will be needed to cater for the demand along with social distancing requirements.
This will result in delays for commuters, making it less attractive to use the services. Network operators are encouraging people to travel off peak, but this will not work for everyone, particularly parents.
An option under consideration for low demand routes is to start implementing demand responsive transport services.
- In environments where access is possible to restrict, temperature monitors may be desirable to prevent ill people from boarding transport services. These are already implemented in some airports and are likely to be rolled out more widely.
- Mobility as a Service (MaaS) systems will enable travellers to access public transport in a contact-free way. They are also an enabler for demand responsive transport services. These may be targeted to specific parts of the community such as the elderly.
There has been a lot of talk about the increasing popularity of active transport – cycling, walking, or scootering. In a COVID-19 world, these are options that support social distancing and do not have to fit within a timetable. The rise of e-scooters and e-bikes makes active transport even more achievable. Should bike and scooter volumes increase significantly, road space will need to be reallocated to ensure safe commutes for pedestrians and bike/ scooter users.
The City of London will make large parts of the road network car-free as the lockdown eases. This is similar to initiatives in US cities such as New York and Los Angeles. If these large population centres can do this, so can major Australian cities.
- Access control systems such as retractable bollards, booms may be useful to restrict access to parts of the road network at certain times of day. Lane control signage could also be used to restrict lane access to cars, and to allocate lane access to bicycles and scooters.
- Enforcement technologies aimed at bicycle and scooter users would also be desirable. Elements include encouraging use of helmets, obeying road rules and reducing use of smart phones while travelling. This would enable sidewalks to be allocated to pedestrians, with road lanes allocated to bicycles and scooters. Safety outcomes for scooter users will improve with access to smooth surfaces.
- End-of trip charging facilities and increased storage facilities will also be needed. Showering facility access may also be restricted, requiring changes to cleaning regimes or alternate approaches, such as use of e-bikes.
Car users and parking
It is likely that more people will commute using their own vehicle. Car sharing will be impacted by social distancing requirements. Overall, the number of cars per commuter will increase. If the number of commuters does not decrease, this will be difficult for cities to manage on already strained networks, and at the endpoint, there will not be enough parking available. Encouraging peak spreading by staggering work start times will help, as will actively encouraging office workers to telecommute 20-60% of their week.
Vehicle-produced pollution will also be more evident and undesirable, with community pressure to manage this better.
- Smart motorway and urban traffic control systems can be used to moderate flow into cities and spread peaks. Online real time or predictive traveller information will also help commuters decide on the best time to leave home. As cooperative ITS (C-ITS) matures, improved network management and driver information will be more feasible.
- Air quality monitoring on Australian road networks has tended to be implemented for tunnels. In Europe, air quality monitoring is undertaken across road networks, and in Stuttgart, the transport control system reroutes traffic based on air quality measures. With the rollout of Internet of Things technology and communications infrastructure, instrumenting infrastructure on a large scale is becoming cheap and the big question becomes how to manage and respond appropriately to all the data collected.
- Connecting air quality monitoring with other technologies such as road use charging could also help to provide a disincentive to commuters. It will however be important to not make this another tax considering the fragile state of the economy. Road use fees could be offset by a reduced license fees or fuel tax.
- Low-pollution electric or hydrogen cell vehicles could also be encouraged through reduced license, toll and road use fees.
- For the home office, virtual private networks and cloud computing make telecommuting perfectly achievable, even for small businesses.
There have never been enough funds to build and maintain all the necessary transport infrastructure in the Australian environment. The distances are too great, and the tax base is too small.
However, if cities manage to achieve a reduction in commuting vehicles by getting large businesses to encourage or mandate a percentage of telecommuting, this presents the opportunity to repurpose planned infrastructure investment to address the lower priority greener works that would seldom otherwise be funded. There could also be an opportunity to invest in innovative design approaches and operational trials.
ITS may well be a beneficiary of such a change as ITS projects tend to result in significant efficiency gains for low cost. These gains also result in environmental benefits associated with reduced overall operation durations and improved engine efficiencies associated with higher speed operation.
A silver lining, and the end game
Overall, the Australian transport network can benefit from the changes that this pandemic has brought about, but it will be essential to reduce the number of commutes.