This is a follow-up on my post about the roadmap out of COVID.
Now I’m pondering the longer term: after COVID has gone.
Assuming a successful vaccine comes in at some point, and things like masks and physical distancing are no longer required, will we all go back to how it was before?
There’s been some interesting commentary from some well informed people on possible long term effects on cities, the inner areas/CBDs specifically – on employment, which of course relates directly to travel demand and public transport.
This seems to sum up the majority view:
I’m of the opinion that work patterns will permanently change. I think that people will learn that Work From Home works, and that connectivity through (video chat) works… and that will change our (patronage) volume.
I think that has some benefits, because I think that will flatten our peaks, and that’s always the expensive part of transit, providing that last (extra) bus in the peak hour – the most unproductive part of the service.Dick Alexander from Transdev North America (15 minutes in)
That’s a view from North America, but it’s very relevant to Melbourne.
Peak demand is what drives much of the investment in transport. Think of the biggest transport projects in Melbourne – the metro tunnel, North East Link, the West Gate Tunnel, the High Capacity Metro Trains (and all their enabling works) – they’re all targeted at increasing capacity, which is most stretched during peak. (The motorways of course, are unlikely to achieve lasting congestion benefits.)
Work at home, or in the office?
Many white collar jobs are being done from home right now. But there is still value in face-to-face collaboration – including establishing working relationships with new people, and activities such as fast-paced brainstorming sessions.
So I expect that once everything’s safe again (and masks are no longer necessary in workplaces), many people will return to the office… but perhaps only part time.
Employers may realise they get better productivity if people don’t have the daily grind of the commute every single day. And they may be able to cut costs because they don’t need as much office space as before.
All of this would mean a long-lasting dip in travel demand. Some predictions say that PT ridership will only get back to 75% of normal.
But longer term, there is a view that growth in cities like Melbourne will continue:
It is important, however, to maintain a longer-term perspective. We shouldn’t be too negative and consumed by the short term. The big picture is Victoria is still a great place to live and work and raise a family and in two years’ time, Victoria is going to be back on a growth path.’John Wylie, quoted in The Age
Part time commuters
If large numbers of people switch to only going into the office part time, that obviously has implications.
Fewer 5-day-a-week commuters obviously means less overall travel demand in peak, taking the heat out of overcrowding.
If long term growth is set to continue, capacity upgrades will still be needed. But the patronage change would effectively be a pause, a some breathing space allowing authorities get ahead, rather than lagging behind as they have often done in the past.
(Authorities have wanted for ages to somehow achieve a cooling of peak demand. I’m not sure a sudden 90+% drop in patronage was quite what they had in mind.)
Part time commuting will also mean a move away from fare products such as Passes, in favour of pay-as-you-go (in Melbourne terms, Myki Money), especially for people who don’t use public transport often for non-work trips.
Many trips may move to off-peak, increasing demand through the day. Public transport networks like Melbourne’s, where the service frequency is heavily skewed to peak hour, will need to re-balance, and provide more capacity and better frequency all day.
All day high frequency would encourage the shift to off-peak. And the good news is – it’s relatively cheap because it can be largely achieved using existing fleets and infrastructure.
Off-peak fare discounts could help the shift. Given Myki copes with V/Line off-peak discounts, there shouldn’t be huge technical hurdles to this.
There also needs to be a bigger focus on suburban services (which in Melbourne are mostly served by infrequent buses) to support all the people in workplaces right across the metropolitan area.
Some suburban workplaces have been far worse hit by COVID-19 than CBD jobs, because those jobs sometimes aren’t so easy to perform at home. Better PT would help aid economic recovery by cutting the number of cars required for households as they return to those jobs.
The CBD is not just for workers
Ultimately it looks like the central city will recover and the growth will return, even if people are commuting part time.
Importantly, the CBD (or CAD – Central Activities District as it’s sometimes known) is not just about office workers. There are local residents, there’s shopping, there are restaurants and events and entertainment venues, and any number of other reasons to go there. This will all help cities, and public transport, bounce back.