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Some thoughts on COVID-19

COVID-19 is developing very fast, and really is quite unlike anything in living memory.

I feel like Australia is still at the early stages, and already the impacts are huge. The ban on events of more than 500 people from Monday is unprecedented, and shopping for scarce supermarket items is a little bit surreal.

I’m a long way from being an expert, and I don’t want to make any predictions, but just a couple of observations on possible public transport impacts.

There was a comment last week about possibly switching to a Sunday timetable, but these seemed like more of a thought bubble than an actual plan. (At least I’d like to think so.)

Then an Age story on Friday speculated on social distancing measures:

The number of people allowed on public transport would likely to be severely limited.

“In a pandemic situation, you’d cut the number of people down to one person per seat,” said Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, who helped author the federal government’s influenza pandemic strategy.

People standing would be required to give each other at least one metre of space.

That could lead to a huge capacity crunch. An E-class tram in Melbourne is designed to hold 210 people, for example. But it has only 64 seats.

However, work hours could be staggered to reduce the number of people needing to use public transport at the same time.

Over decades the public transport staffing has been reduced – similar to many fields of work where labour costs have necessitated changes to working practices.

In the name of efficiency, these days we mostly buy our own tickets and board on platforms and onto vehicles with no direct staff presence. The majority of frontline staff are drivers, and do not normally supervise passengers.

So it’s very difficult to see how load limit like one passenger per seat that could be enforced.

The key is that any public transport restrictions would have to be accompanied by Government-led or recommended/mandated work-from-home policies (for those in roles that can do this – not everybody can) to make it work, alongside similar moves by schools and universities.

And in terms of any cuts to service, those would need to be very carefully considered to avoid exacerbating crowding. In other words service cuts should be in reaction to any peak hour patronage dip, rather than forcing it.

(See the update below for some clarity on this)

Peak hour demand might already be dropping. Anecdotally, a lot of people are switching to other travel modes or working from home.

Outside peak, as Jarrett Walker writes (in the context of lost revenue forcing these decisions) off-peak frequencies are cheaper to run, and should be maintained lest they prompt a long-term patronage drop.

Is it still okay to use public transport? As of Sunday the official advice was yes.

Public transport operators are promoting public health messages, which is good to see.

They should also be upping their cleaning regimes with regard to shared spaces, especially for things like door buttons, handles and seats – though at this early stage with hardly any “community transmission” in Victoria, the risk is thankfully minimal.

And operators should be supporting their staff – with any necessary protective gear such as masks and gloves, and operational changes to help reduce their risk.

All this might change at any time. This whole situation is obviously developing very fast. We’ll see what happens next.

Good luck everybody in the weeks ahead.


Update 7pm. A bit more information has emerged today, via a government source:

  • They don’t intend to cut services in response to patronage drops
  • But they will take advice from the State government’s medical experts, which might at some stage make recommendations related to service levels
  • They also might have to cut services if large numbers of staff (drivers and other support staff such as signallers and control room personnel) are unavailable due to illness. The nature of cuts would depend on which staff are out of action.
  • They’re looking at what other measures may be required, including what can be done to reduce cash handling (especially an issue for bus drivers)
  • Currently the only option for people with a Myki Pass who don’t want to use it is to get a refund. For Yearlies this may not be economical – because they are structured as 325 days at a discount rate, plus 40 free days. PTV’s algorithm means any refund instantly loses the 40 free days, then you get back a balance from the rest, which is often not much. It really depends how much is left on the Pass versus how long you expect not to use it.

Update Tuesday 17/3/2020: The cleaning regime has been boosted.

Update Wednesday 18/3/2020:

PTV advice includes suggestions to stagger your travel, and avoid cash

Victorian Government DHHS advice from today includes:

  • Additional cleaning is now in place on public transport. The Victorian Government is urging employers to consider staggered work times and remote working arrangements to reduce overcrowding at peak travel times.
  • The public is advised to sit in the back of taxis and ride shares, while mass transport should be avoided by people vulnerable to the virus, including the elderly.

4 replies on “Some thoughts on COVID-19”

There were a lot more people walking, running and riding in on the Gardiner Creek trail this morning – either its the fantastic weather we have right now or people are avoiding PT. Also noticed many more cars than usual on the roads. Hopefully all those trying a stint at active transport realise how beneficial it is for the mind and body once you arrive at work for the day!

I’m also interested to see how global emissions track this year given the massive disruption to carbon emission intensive industries…

The behaviours of us humans in trying times does not bode well for when climate change starts to displace people and disrupt our system of living…

One thing of interest. Back in the 90s when the 4D double decker was around, the doors opened automatically without needing to be pressed. Our W class trams have also had automatic doors since the 1950s (with many older W classes being retrofitted with them too), yet our trains have only ever had manually-opened doors, be it human-powered, or self-opening on the push of a button.

Getting to the point, during the Comeng life extension project I think we should have converted the doors to use the push-button mechanisms similar to the X’Trapolis/Siemens trains instead of those useless yellow things which can be hard to open. South Australia retrofitted their Comeng (3000-class) trains with similar mechanisms long ago.

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