The Victorian Government has released its roadmap out of COVID-19 restrictions. I’ve been pondering what this means for travel demand and public transport in Melbourne, and activity in the CBD, which largely drives PT patronage.
The steps in the roadmap (*which are mostly subject to case numbers) start from Sunday night.
1st Step (14th September)
The curfew start time pushes back from 8pm to 9pm. At the very least this should see authorities reinstate the train and tram services that were cut during that hour.
But really they should take the opportunity to restore all services (apart from after-midnight Night Network) – the long wait times continue to make life difficult for essential workers, and by encouraging normally loyal passengers to switch work trips to driving, may do permanent long term damage to evening patronage.
This step includes some expanded social interaction including social bubbles for those living alone (including beyond the 5km limit), but with no changes for workplaces or schools, it’s unlikely we’ll see a big increase in public transport patronage, or CBD activity.
2nd Step (28 September)*
The curfew remains in place, but there is some loosening of restrictions on social activities in public within 5km of home.
No changes in workplaces, including no changes in retail.
Some school students return, including VCE/VCAL, which will see some additional public transport patronage at school travel times, including beyond 5km from home.
3rd step (26 October)*
Night curfew removed. No restrictions on distance or reasons for leaving home, but still some limits on gatherings.
Most retail can re-open, though with some restrictions, and outdoor hospitality venues can open. This may trigger more trips for shopping, including via public transport to the CBD and the big retail centres – likely to be mostly outside peak hour, including evenings.
Some workplaces that require on-site staff can re-open, with COVID precautions in place. That also means commute travel demand will increase, including by public transport, but not so much for journeys to the CBD, given it is dominated by white-collar office workers who will continue to work from home.
The bigger patronage effect is likely to be on suburban routes, skewed towards buses that serve the retail centres and industrial employment areas. This was reflected in patronage in early August: just before Stage 4 workplace restrictions kicked-in, buses were at 17% of normal patronage, compared to Metro trains 11%, and V/Line and trams both at 9%.
This means that boosting bus frequencies in suburban areas should be a priority, to help ensure physical distancing as patronage comes back – including on weekend shopping centre services. Cutting wait times will also help with household budget recovery by ensuring that not everybody needs to drive to work.
Last (4th) Step (November 23)*
A further loosening, but still some restrictions in place on gathering numbers, including at home and in restaurants.
Even at this point, it’s still officially: Work from home if you can, meaning the CBD is likely to remain mostly empty of white-collar workers – so we won’t see big loads on CBD public transport.
(Not sure why it’s called the “Last step” when it’s not.)
“COVID Normal” (*when case thresholds are met)
At this point the plan is for a phased return to onsite work for those who have been working at home – which includes most CBD office workers.
Schools also return to all on-site learning.
Does this mean that travel demand and public transport will return to normal? I’m not sure.
It’s hard to imagine all office workers returning to onsite working while the risk of COVID-19 is still around. Employers are likely to be risk-averse (nobody wants their workforce knocked out by illness), and employees won’t be keen to sit at a desk for 8 hours wearing a mask.
They also won’t be keen to pack into trains, trams and buses. Which brings us to the next point.
Is public transport safe?
With many cities elsewhere in the world having re-opened, we can observe how things have been going. There are strong indications that if one assumes:
- mandated use of masks and face coverings,
- increased cleaning,
- good hand hygiene, and
- physical distancing
…then using public transport is not a significant transmission risk.
Indeed if you look around, you’ll find very few documented cases of transmission via public transport under those conditions. There are some suspected cases (including recently in New Zealand), but these did not involve masks.
In Victoria we’ll clearly be wearing masks for a while yet.
Mr Andrews said the use of masks was a high-reward, low-cost extra level of protection that will be needed when people start to mingle.ABC News: Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews unveils roadmap to easing coronavirus restrictions
Additionally, recent research seems to indicate that the early fears of the virus spreading via shared touch surfaces may have been overblown. Still, the additional cleaning, messaging around hand hygiene, and distribution of hand sanitiser dispensers at busy stops probably reduces the risk.
Some cities are trialling special cleaning methods that provide additional longer-term protection, which is also worth looking at to help keep passengers safe.
If masks, cleaning and hand hygiene are mostly okay, the big issue on public transport is physical distancing.
How to reduce crowding?
The PT elephant in the room is: How can you maintain physical distancing when public transport is crowded?
The answer is: you can’t. So the challenge for Government is to curb the crowding – to slow down patronage recovery until a vaccine is found.
This is closely related to how workplaces will function, and how many people will travel to work at peak times.
There are options for Government, which include:
- Boost off-peak, evening and weekend services to encourage travel outside peak by cutting waiting times and crowding
- Introduce off-peak discounts – already applied to V/Line, so the Myki system should be capable of this
- Removing the Free Tram Zone, which causes overcrowding on CBD trams
These will need to be combined with continued Work From Home arrangements for white-collar employees. This might mean staggered start times, only coming into the office on certain days each week (or certain weeks), or only coming in for important meetings or workshops.
A mix of these measures can do a lot to help keep peak hour demand down and help people who have to travel to maintain physical distancing.
What about the long term effects on travel demand, public transport patronage, and CBD growth, once COVID is finally defeated by a vaccine hopefully within a year or two? That’ll be the subject of another post.