During the COVID-19 shutdown, Melbourne construction crews have eliminated a traffic-congestion generating monster. The level crossing on the Toorak Road-Monash Freeway intersection has been replaced with a railway bridge six months ahead of schedule, in readiness for peak hour.
But when will the cars return?
“Looking out the window, we haven't got travel anymore,” says Graham Currie. He’s been asked to investigate whether Victoria's $57 billion transport spending agenda is still necessary. “We've got a gigantic amount of the future economy of Australia sitting there, waiting to be spent. Our purpose is to explore how much of this effect is going to be long-term.”
Projects on the drawing board include the Suburban Rail Loop, the Northeast Road Link, and Melbourne Airport Rail Link.
These plans were developed when Melbourne was Australia’s fastest-growing city. Now, the tide of immigrants – international students, skilled workers and backpackers among them – has stopped, and so has the revenue they brought with them.
How will restrictions change behaviour?
Professor Currie's brief is to discover how the restrictions will change long-term behaviour, and to make recommendations on that basis.
He’s dismissive of some of the more drastic predictions about a post-COVID world already circulating, which he believes are based on wishful and alarmist thinking.
“Are we really not going to have any more international trade? Is globalisation over? I don't think you can change the world's economy that quickly ... I just don't think this is big enough to be the end of human civilisation as we've known it.”
The international trade question has three parts, he says. The first part, the macro effect, concerns the future of immigration and globalisation, as well as the pandemic’s long-term impacts on Victoria’s economy.
“We've done a lot of reviewing of the previous literature about shocks to the economy,” he says. "If the past is any guide to the future, then unskilled workers will be most affected in the short-term. But over the longer term, employment rates tend to rebound.
“There'll be some decline, but I think we'll come back again in five to 10 years,” he says. “I suspect Australia may come out of it quickly compared to everywhere else, but international travel will stop for quite a while.”
He says "effects on migration are uncertain but migration was always based on how attractive Australia is compared to the rest of the world; I think COVID-19 will increase that attraction not reduce it in the long term”.
Changes to daily travel routines
Professor Currie must also factor in how the shutdown has changed the daily travel routines of individual Victorians – which he terms the micro effects. He’s already conducted structured interviews to prepare for a planned survey of more than 2000 people’s travel habits across Melbourne, representing a range of socio-economic circumstances and locations.
“We want to find out what it’s been like for people who are retired, run a shop, for young people, old people. There's a plethora of stories out there which are not being told, and we need to understand to make sure we don't impose our view of the world and our experience on others,” he says.
The impact of technological fixes applied to keep the economy moving while we socially isolate will also be considered: Which adjustments are temporary, and which are permanent? How many of us will continue to work and study from home, and shop online, for example? How many of us will ditch the daily commute forever?
The preliminary interviews conducted so far have been illuminating. “Some people are loving it,” Professor Currie says, "but others have lost their jobs. Some are shopping locally and exercising more."
But, when asked if they thought COVID-19 would change travel habits when the threat was over, all the respondents said they would go back to travel and do activities the way they did before COVID-19.
The exception was those who believed they would keep “working and studying from home”, he says. “That could change travel a bit. However, it was not an overwhelming number. It was a change at the margin. I’d be surprised if they affect travel by more than 5 to10 per cent.”
Measures in the medium term
In between the micro and the macro is the “meso” – the changes affecting the local community we live and work in.
For as long as COVID-19 poses a danger, physical distancing will continue on trams, trains and buses, he says. In the CBD, where 65 per cent of workers commute by public transport, distancing rules will mean that only about 10-12 per cent will be able to take that option.
How will the remainder get to work?
“About 200,000 commuters are going to have to do something else about getting to work," he says. "We're going to have to free up the road space to allow more bikes so people can travel reasonable distances.”
Walking zones will need to be expanded, too. Working from home will likely continue for people where this is a realistic option.
“Travel is extremely habitual,” Professor Currie says. “We're used to doing it in a certain way, and it's hard to change people's habits. However, when people have no choice, they suddenly find themselves doing other things, and that can have a sustained effect.”
The survey asked people whether the shutdown had led people to question their car use, and whether they’d buy a car in the future.
“For a little while, three months, six months, maybe even a year, we’ll have to live in a different way," he says. "And that could be a game-changer. But we don't know. It's all speculative and we need evidence from surveys like this before we can be sure.”
The isolation appeal of cars
For some people, cars will become even more attractive, because they provide isolation.
“We're wanting to understand the very long-term impact of this after the infection's gone,” Professor Currie says. “Infection fear is a big concern for public transport. This makes people reluctant to use public transport, or go to the MCG; going to any crowded spaces.”
In his interviews, people indicated they’d be willing to return to public transport once conditions were deemed safe. This also happened in Hong Kong and Taiwan post-SARS, he says, “and SARS was deadlier than this coronavirus”.
“Some people are loving it. They’re shopping locally and exercising more. But when asked if they thought they would keep their new routines when the coronavirus threat was over, all the respondents said they didn’t think they would."
In the meantime, he recommends that the CBD’s free tram zone be abolished.
“It makes no sense to encourage people walking on the street to crowd into a tram and then also give them a free fare for doing it. There are no tourists now anyway so let’s shut the free fares down for now.”
He also suggests extending the free commuting period to 7.30am (it now ends at 7am) as a way of spreading travel to reduce crowding.
Eventually, the restrictions will be lifted, he says. International travel will be possible, planes will fly again, and pressure to restore the immigration program will increase.
“The fundamental drivers that created the transport problem we had before all this are still there on planet Earth,” he says. “They haven't gone away. We've got a globalisation issue. We've got a migration issue. People still want to come to Australia. People still want to grow the Australian economy. The key question is how long it takes before we go back to the old normal.”
Professor Currie’s research into travel activity and transport infrastructure spending is part of The Melbourne Experiment, launched recently by Monash University. It is a landmark interdisciplinary research collaboration to study the effects of the COVID-19 restrictions on the functions of the city. Bringing together senior researchers across the University, The Melbourne Experiment is monitoring key activities and elements of the urban environment before, during, and after the COVID-19 shutdown.
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