With COVID-19 essentially eradicated from New Zealand, life is slowly returning towards normality. So it seems like a good time to take a look at the longer-term – especially in terms of what (if any) lasting impacts the COVID-19 epidemic might have on our transport system.

Public Transport

The obvious place to start is with public transport. With people at home and PT confined to essential workers, ridership in April was down a massive 94% on the year before. The move to Level 3 and then Level 2 has started to see numbers rebound and as of the end of last week, average weekday usage (below) was about 43% of the same week last year – although interestingly weekend usage has recovered faster and is at 57% of last year. Regardless, numbers are still down a lot and will likely remain that way at least until we reach Level 1 as many city centre businesses and our universities, both major generators of ridership, are still primarily working and studying from home. Also hampering this is that until we move to Level 1 capacity on buses, trains and ferries remains limited.

Prior to COVID-19, public transport use peaked at around 103.6 million trips over a 12 month basis. By the end of April, that had already fallen by 11 million and indications are by a further 7.5 million to the end of May to about 85 million trips. The big questions for PT ridership are “how long will it takes for ridership levels to recover?” and also “will longer-term projections be the same as before COVID-19?”

How long will it take for ridership to recover

At Level 1 I think we can assume many people currently working or studying from home will return to their offices/university. However we might see changes in travel behaviour and it’s possible we’ll see more people working from home more often so even if people don’t continue working from home all the time it seems likely that some will do so more often.

Possibly a bigger impact though is that we’re staring down the barrel of a huge economic recession where many thousands of people could lose their jobs – and therefore no longer need to travel to work.

Even at Level 1 life won’t exactly be the same as before – there will be no international tourists for a long time to come and there will presumably be far fewer international students and other migrant workers – although it’s not clear how much those groups used PT.

On the plus side, at Level 1 there will no longer be artificial capacity constraints on each bus, train or ferry – meaning that people will have greater confidence in being able to use PT without worrying that their service will be full and they’ll have to wait for another one. Given what we’re seeing in other aspects of society, I doubt public transport will be perceived as a dangerous way to travel by most people.

In addition, the fundamental geometric constraints of Auckland aren’t disappearing. As of just over a week ago traffic counts were back to about 80% of normal so things are still kind of in ‘school holiday’ mode. As those numbers push back closer to 100%, former PT users who may currently be driving are likely to reconsider their options.

All this means that I think it could take a few years before PT ridership fully recovers in Auckland. The real longer-term risk will come if fares are hiked and services are cut back to cover short-term funding gaps. This could lead to a kind of death spiral where fewer people want to use PT, leading to more service cuts so fewer use it etc. I’m hopeful our political masters won’t squander the billions they’ve invested in turning that around over the past 10-15 years. If the death spiral is prevented, then the key reasons ridership will be lower over the next couple of years will relate to reduced travel demand in general rather than reduced ‘mode share’.

Walking and Cycling

One of the nicest things during Level Four was seeing huge numbers of people walking or cycling around their neighbourhoods – including on streets that would have otherwise been clogged with traffic and far too dangerous. It has been a little bit heartbreaking to see that disappear in recent weeks, especially as Auckland Transport have been incredibly half-hearted in their efforts to create safe space for people walking and cycling.

Other parts of the country have been enthusiastic in their support of providing more space for pedestrians and cyclists, while even NZTA has come to the party in providing a 90% subsidy for ‘Innovating Streets’ projects that make space for people to safely walk or cycle in ways that are quick and cheap to implement.

Unfortunately will likely look back on the recovery from COVID-19 as a missed opportunity to make a step-change improvement to walking and cycling in Auckland. The proposed budget cuts for safety and cycling projects will also likely mean more vulnerable users of our streets unnecessarily die or are seriously injured. It remains a mystery why Auckland Transport care so little about improving walking and cycling. Maybe if safe cycling required an app and could be trialled in Devonport they might care more?

Other Changes

There are likely to be other, more locally significant, changes in travel patterns for a long while yet. It will probably be many years before travel demand to or from the Airport recovers. Whether that means projects enhancing access to the Airport are less important now, or whether it means this is the perfect time to build them as fewer people will feel the impacts of disruption, is an interesting debate.

I also think that perhaps there needs to be a greater focus on supporting travel to local destinations much more. If people are working from home more, then we may see less demand for long trips into major centres, but more demand for trips to local stores or hang outs. Fewer tourists and international students mean the city centre will be a quieter place for a fair while yet – again maybe the perfect opportunity to accelerate programmes designed to make the city centre a nicer place to be in.

So, putting this together, here are a few overall thoughts about some of the longer-term implications of Covid-19:

  • Public transport will recover, but it may take time. Lower ridership will probably be due to less overall travel, which means there are still opportunities to change people’s travel habits and increase PT mode share.
  • It’s incredibly important to avoid a ‘death spiral’ by cutting services. Decades of hard work and billions in past and current investment could be put at risk.
  • There is a great opportunity to ‘lock in’ some of the newly formed habits of walking and cycling more, but only if Auckland Transport dramatically change their attitude towards providing safe and attractive facilities for people walking and cycling. Evidence does not look good to date on this.
  • Demand to places like the Airport and the City Centre will likely take the longest to recover. Light-rail to the Airport is probably not as high a priority anymore so perhaps the focus should go back on getting the section between Mt Roskill and the City Centre going. Or perhaps the Northwest route should become a higher priority as the central isthmus already has pretty good public transport and combined with lower demand means it’ll take longer to get overwhelmed, a key driver for light-rail. Although we also shouldn’t forget the need to improve connections to Mangere.
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29 comments

    1. You’d have to actually commit to A2B before you could extend it. My understanding is the early works are on the scrap-heap in the Covid19 Emergency budget so I wouldn’t hold your breath.

    2. General FYI

      In the Phil Goff Slash and Burn Budget, Airport to Botany Rapid Transit (A2B) all stages got thrown on the scrap heap. Goff wouldnt even put A2B on the CIP list for Central Government funding.

      A2B links the Airport to Puhinui Station, Manukau and later Botany

      So doing this has three consequences
      1) No cross town connection especially between the Airport and Puhinui

      2) Any chance of combined Urban Renewal along the corridor is lost. Land owners were preparing for A2B are now crap out of luck

      3) Extending A2B through Mangere which would have allowed Mangere to be connected to a Rapid Transit line either to the Airport or Onehunga

      Just a note Goff drives by Papakura Station twice a day to and from work and contributes to congestion on the Motorway

      1. Yeah, not voting for Goff again no matter what monster puts himself up against him.

        He doesn’t get climate change. And he doesn’t get cities.

        1. “Yeah, not voting for Goff again no matter what monster puts himself up against him.”

          Probably a bad idea. Often politics is about voting for the less bad monster unfortunately.

      2. All of A2B is gone ?

        What’s the deal with the existing work from Airport to the Railway Station? That’s a busway with dedicated biking / walking path right?

        1. Southern Connection is also a NZTA project.

          Works on the priority lanes along SH20 are under way right now.

  1. First, I can only speak from the experience of myself and my social circle – but it seems employers, having actually had a two month trial of their WFH (Work From Home) DR plan, are much more likely to allow staff who can WFH to WFH on a flexible basis now. This is not just because productivity was unchanged, but because staff liked it, and also because large numbers of people have now got the infrastructure (monitors, desks, a little office) to work from home efficiently.

    The implications for PT from that are obvious – if everyone who could WFH did WFH once a week, that implies 20% reduction in traffic across all modes from that cohort.

    Second, a lot of people will shy off PT for a long time (months) for public health reasons.

    Third, cycling could be a major winner, if only the infrastructure authorities had the imagination to seize the singularity of opportunity presented by this for cycling.

    I would suggest that a 10-20% drop in PT usage over a one to two year period could provide a breathing space that could allow far sighted PT planners to get ahead of the demand curve on PT provision. However, the recent Auckland City “emergency” budget does not fill me with hope that this will occur. More likely, a year or two of reduced passenger numbers will be used as an excuse to cancel and defer spending on all PT…

    1. Agree, especially when you have the Ōrākei Councillor as Chair of the Finance committee with all the local walking and cycling projects ‘paused’

    2. ‘Second, a lot of people will shy off PT for a long time (months) for public health reasons.’

      Based on what I’ve seen at malls and with domestic air travel in level 2 I don’t think this will be a major issue.

      It is probably true that people who don’t use PT anyway will regularly comment on how they wouldn’t use PT after Covid, however that won’t impact ridership.

    3. The even bigger plus that WFH offers is the opportunity to downsize office space, therefore lowering rent costs etc.

      The concept of everyone going to one place at the same time every day is losing its shine. De-centralisation of business via WFH doesn’t just lower costs for the business (smaller offices) but removes demand from transport, AND lowers property prices in inner suburbs, as people stay in the outer suburbs more and more.

      As I’ve said for many years, de-centralisation of employment is key to success.

    4. I’m not convinced WFH will remain as big as I thought it would a few weeks ago. I know some people who have gone back to the office, they were really enjoying working from home and didn’t really want to go back but now they have, they’re loving it. Both the human interaction but also the other stuff they can do during the day e.g. shopping/food options etc.
      It makes me wonder if we’ll see that quite a bit once level 1 hits.

  2. Perhaps public transport could be redesigned as a result of Covid19. All passengers would benefit if we got rid of the need for people to stand in aisles with their droplets raining down on the seated passengers’ heads. It would require more vehicles to carry the same number of people so costs would rise. But the increased frequency would make services more useful. I know this goes against the grain for rail promoters who prefer the sardine tin style of a row of seats alone the side with the majority crushed in, but maybe that was never a healthy way for people to travel.

    1. Perhaps miffy should be a go-to consultant for… …everything in this world. He seems to not only have an (authoritative) opinion on everything but seems to know not merely more than actual recognised experts but seems to know everything.

  3. Anecdotally it seems that more businesses are offering greater flexibility for their staff. I have spoken to a lot of different businesses and posts on LinkedIn etc. all seem to point to great flexibility. At my small office of 8 it looks like about half will work from home on any given day permanently. We are still working through the exact details but the appetite is definitely there from most of us (I live in the city so will go to the office everyday). And of course there is the job loses or reduced hours and/or days. I suspect we will see a significant drop in transport (PT and private) for at least the rest of this year but who knows after that.

  4. The surge in people cycling and walking has gone. There are noticeably less people commuting on the cycle way.
    I took the bus this morning which was always standing room only or full. Today it was less than half full and a fast trip.
    Double digit unemployment and no university students makes a big difference, and it will take years for the economy to recover.
    The long term view shouldn’t change thou, and cancelling electric buses and cycle path work is nuts.

    1. Talking to my local bike shop owner he had a surge of bike purchases with many still on order. Trouble is now to use them one has to gear up with high viz jacket, flashing lights and extreme care on the streets that for a brief period were a pleasure to ride on.

  5. From where I sit I can see both SH1 traffic and the main train line from Kapiti into Wellington. Amazing how much traffic dropped away during the Covid crisis – just trucks, almost zero cars – and now almost back to normal with traffic volumes. But what was especially perverse to see was the surreal sight of a regular-as-clockwork train service all through Covid, fully free and fully running, complete with zero passengers.

    There is something dreadfully wrong when the Public Transport system is provided free of charge when we are not allowed to use it. It would be so hugely useful to have PT for free now that we want the economy to function again – how well would that work to get people off the road? We’ve already been shown that it can run at full capacity for weeks on end when there are no passengers – how about the NZ Gov continue that experiment but with the addition of passengers now?

    1. PT is currently free in Wellington. Understand the issue is lack of contactless options for trains. GW may just be waiting for Level 1 (probably) next week.

    2. My strongest memory from the midst of lockdown was seeing just one Countdown truck passing by on SH1 nearby to the then stopped Transmission Gully work and a four carriage train going past with just the driver and guard on board.

      1. I was on a western train from Britomart to Mt Eden which was a 6 and the 3car carriage I was in the driver I were the only in it . And then I got the hospital bus to Greenlane and it was the same just the 2 of us . And that was the 2nd week of level 3 .

        1. During Level 2, trains were only doing about 2.5k trips a day. During Level 3 this increased to between about between 7-9k (actually kept increasing all through level 3). As of last week about 35k.

  6. PT ridership in NZ will take a hit for a period of time.

    Despite NZ eradicating the disease; people will be paranoid of human contact for some period of time. A lot of office workers have got used to working from home and they may not be able to be brought back to the office. The overseas students will be gone for a while (and that little money-spinner will take time to come back if ever). And a lot of people are going to be out of work as the economy adjusts to the loss of tourism revenues, as the value of office real estate plummets and the aforementioned loss of overseas students bites.

    But if the recession is particularly nasty: People may not be using their automobiles much (or dispensing with them altogether). So PT ridership may return as the economy recovers.

  7. I haven’t seen any figures on how much difference it makes, but keeping some working from home seems like the most practical way of achieving any substantial ongoing traffic reduction. It’s relatively pain-free.

  8. Ha, ha, ha, the roosters have come home to roost, with all the money wasted like moving a pedestrian crossing a few meters along the road at centerway road Orewa, and empty buses e.g. #981 & #984 needed for the sunday rush hour, that could run alternative each half hour like #981 from on the hour to half hour & #984 from half hour to the next hour, and there would be no harmship, now there is no money left in the purse, and people need to be made redundant. You Dorks.

  9. This is why it is imperative that they have either reduced fares or free fares until PT gets back to say 90% of PC numbers to avoid a permanent loss.

  10. A word of thanks for this discussion. I am a New Zealander working in the UK on a variety of rail and transport issues; and since NZ is about six weeks ahead of the curve as to where we are as we come out of lockdown, I can refer to this article and accompanying discussion as an indicator as to where we are likely to end up in terms of: road demand (recovering rapidly, obviously) PT demand (a big way to go to recover) and changes in working patterns (off the proverbial scale). So, again, thank you!

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