May 1, 2020
Source: Australian Financial Review
Author: Jenny Wiggins
Date: 1 May 2020
Traffic congestion could surge if governments don’t make public transport safe to use, urban planners have warned as some COVID-19 restrictions ease and bookings of car share and ride-hailing services rebound.
“With so few people commuting to work, traffic is significantly down,” said Gabriel Metcalf, chief executive of the Committee for Sydney. “But I worry that as people return to work they will be reluctant to ride public transport, and we could see a big increase in congestion.”
Car Next Door chief executive Will Davies said national bookings for member cars, which were running at 20,000 monthly before the virus hit, had halved by mid-April. But bookings are now rising 20 per cent weekly with the group expecting 12,000-14,000 bookings in May, he said.
“We might be a pretty good early indicator of the activity that’s going on,” Mr Davies said. “Even before the restrictions were loosened people were starting to get around more.”
Car sharing group Popcar has benefited from people not wanting to use public transport, with a 7 per cent increase in both new sign-ups and reservations in March compared with January, director Anthony Welsh said, but wouldn’t disclose member numbers. “We anticipate the increase in demand for alternatives to public transport and ridesharing to remain higher than previously,” Mr Welsh said.
GoGet, Australia’s biggest car share group, declined to comment.
Ride-hailing group Didi said there had been “a small upturn” in the number of trips taken and that it was expecting a bigger spike when travel restrictions eased.
Didi was more popular during the week than on weekends for the first time during the outbreak as people used its services to go to transport hubs, shopping centres and hospitals rather than pubs and restaurants, a spokesman said.
Uber, which reported huge declines of 60-70 per cent for its services in big US cities in March, said it couldn’t speculate on future demand.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said she expected people to continue working from home after the crisis, easing the pressure on roads and public transport.
Cycling had increased “dramatically” since the virus outbreak, and the city wanted to create more space for cyclists and walkers, including introducing 30-kilometre speed zones, shorter wait times for pedestrians at traffic signals, temporary changes to street layouts and wider footpaths, she said.
“If we’re able to make it safe and easy for more people to ride to and from work, fewer people will need to be in cars or on overcrowded public transport,” Ms Moore said.
Mr Metcalf also thinks Australian cities should follow the lead of London, New York and Paris (where the city’s mayor has argued the return of cars and pollution could aggravate the health crisis) and create more cycle lanes.
“Building out a full network of separated cycle lanes would be perfect fiscal stimulus – a capital program that can get up and running quickly, using smaller firms to do the work,” he said.
State governments have increased the frequency of cleaning of buses, trains and trams but are not planning to actually enforce social distancing – which may make some people reluctant to get on crowded public transport in bigger cities like Sydney and Melbourne.
Analysis of Australian public transport systems by engineering consultant WSP has found that even enforcing”relaxed” distancing measures (keeping people just one metre apart) would mean that buses, trains and trams would only be able to operate at 30 per cent to 50 per cent of their total capacity.
The NSW government, which says the use of public transport services has tumbled 75 per cent to 85 per cent during the outbreak, has no plans to increase services or limit how many people can cram on buses and trains.
“We are asking everyone to also be sensible when travelling and do their bit for a safer trip,” said Transport for NSW Secretary Rodd Staples. “This means not travelling when sick, only making essential trips and practicing good personal hygiene.”
People are still boarding buses in NSW as normal through the front door, but the government is taping off the first few seats to stop people getting too near to drivers. (In London, 27 bus drivers have died from COVID-19, according to trade union Unite.)
In Victoria, just 200,000 trips are being taken each day on buses, trains and trams compared with 2 million trips daily before COVID-19. Jeroen Weimar, head of services for the state’s transport department, said Victoria would monitor passengers’ behaviour and wait for advice from health authorities before making operational changes.
In Western Australia, people using public transport are exempt from the 4-square metre rule that limits crowding in public spaces.
“We do not intend to restrict the number of people travelling on a particular service (provided it is within the licensed capacity of the vehicle) while the risk of community transmission remains low,” a government spokesperson said.
Full bus services resumed in the state on Wednesday, and train services will be back to normal by May 4.