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.
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.
As Nelson moves into Alert Level 3, Nelson City Council is working swiftly to support our economy, and our community, with changes to the city centre layout to make it a safer place to work, visit and shop.
For further details go to the Our Nelson story https://t.co/iRSgCgpdjc pic.twitter.com/bnquJJs3Me
— Nelson City Council (@nelsoncitynz) April 23, 2020
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?
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.