A worker disinfects a rail carriage in China (via Business Insider; Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The coronavirus pandemic is upsetting the standard view on many things, not least cities. Economist John Quiggin has gone from optimism to pessimism about the role of mass public transport:

Challenge: Covid pandemic proved I was wrong all along about …

My answer: mass public transport as the way of the future

Professor Quiggin doesn’t state his reasoning, but it’s certainly plausible the longer-term impact of the current outbreak on mass transit could be severe. How harsh will depend on factors like the duration of the lockdown, the expectation of further outbreaks, how well we go with a vaccine, how much immunity is gained by those who recover, and heightened fear of other as yet unknown, but perhaps deadlier, pandemics.

Here’re some ways public transport might be negatively affected post lock-down and beyond:

  1. It could be less attractive to travellers fearful of catching a virus than private transport, at least for a considerable period. Many might prefer to drive, cycle or walk to work and school. Some might choose to work from home regularly, an option more readily available to those who work in the city centre where public transport patronage is highest.
  2. It might have to deal with significantly higher operating and capital costs due especially to social distancing regulations. This might manifest in lower maximum passenger loads, higher frequencies, larger stations/stops, and higher construction costs for infrastructure (already happening on Melbourne Metro).
  3. It could have difficulty attracting funding because (a) there might be less money available for improvements due to the huge sums already committed to managing the crisis, (b) because demand from other portfolios for pandemic-related infrastructure improvements (e.g. Health) might consume most of whatever funds are available, and (c) because there might be a prolonged economic recession.
  4. The population of prospective passengers might fall because of lower international student enrolments, reduced tourism, and perhaps cutbacks in immigration.
  5. In the extreme case, it’s possible that dense activity centres like the CBD (which generate most mass transit patronage) might be less attractive to businesses. Some firms might move some or all of their operations to locations where employees can more easily commute by private modes.

There’s a counterargument that investment in public transport infrastructure will get a kick-along from the likely need for stimulus projects, but there are problems with this proposition.

Most of the leading public transport projects currently promoted by politicians are huge undertakings e.g. Melbourne’s underground suburban rail loop (officially $50 billion but much more) and airport rail line ($8 – $15 billion). These mega-projects are a long way from shovel ready. The response to the GFC suggests other options with shorter lead times and bigger national job multipliers are preferable e.g. BER, housing.

In addition, as per 3b above, it ignores competition from other portfolios whose capital needs are more directly related to the pandemic zeitgeist and involve much smaller projects. That’s obviously Health but others (e.g. Education, Prisons) could require significant rebuilding in response to heightened awareness of pandemic risk. Then there’s roads.

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As previously noted, the behaviour of travellers “on the other side” is uncertain. While there’s potential for a pronounced aversion to public transport, it would be premature to assume the worst at this stage. The CBD and public transport systems constitute an enormous investment in capital and contribute significantly to the economy; they’re not likely to be left to moulder. I expect both will remain critical to the functioning of Australia’s capital cities, albeit with the distinct possibility of some drop-off at the margin for an unknown period.

What should we be thinking about in adapting public transport to the possible new demands of users, especially travellers’ suspicion of crowding? Some steps we might consider:

  • Promoting a permanent culture of cleanliness on public transport e.g. continual sanitisation of rolling stock and facilities; encouraging mask-wearing on public transport as long-seen in some Asian cities.
  • Minimising points of physical contact e.g. tap-on/ tap-off machines; queuing at entry points; carriage door buttons. There could be a case for abolishing fares temporarily while equipment is upgraded and facilities adapted to the new requirements.
  • Reconfiguring rolling stock to provide more in-carriage social distancing options for standees e.g. more straps/poles; body support options that don’t require hand holds.
  • Increasing frequencies of trains, trams, buses in peak periods (which will now have a lower threshold and last longer). This is probably the most important and costly action. Trains will need to be more punctual/reliable, while buses and trams will require better systems to minimise bunching e.g. more dedicated road space.
  • Prioritising works that increase the capacity and reliability of the existing system. As I’ve pointed out before, candidates include upgrades to signalling, additional train/tram/bus rolling stock, track duplications, extensions of electrification, dedicated road space for trams/buses, and level crossing removals (see Should Shorten fund Melbourne’s suburban rail loop?). The Rail Futures Institute proposes reconfiguring Melbourne’s city rail loop to expand capacity.
  • Delaying planned mega-projects like Melbourne’s underground suburban rail link and airport rail line. The warrant for these projects (as well as the NE Link motorway!) is now even more doubtful given increasing costs and in some cases lower demand.
  • Staggering start/finish times for school and work to reduce peak loading.

We should also be looking at fast-tracking alternative/complementary modes for travellers. Building a network of safe routes for slow two-wheelers by reassigning existing road space and building new works should be a high priority. The availability of electric bicycles/(Vespa-style) scooters makes two-wheelers a potential game-changer provided travellers feel they’re safe (see Could powered two-wheelers be a game-changer for urban travel?). There’s also a need to make walking more attractive e.g. more space, more safety, less delay from traffic.

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While I’m confident public transport (and density) will remain crucial to the success of Australia’s cities, the key challenge remains how we manage private travel. Cars currently account for 90% of motorised travel (passenger kms) averaged across Australia’s capital cities and 84% in our densest city, Sydney. The car was set to continue to dominate our cities even before the pandemic; now it’s probably increased its attractiveness somewhat relative to public transport. More on this critical issue later.