A shift in how, when and why we move – what is the ‘new normal’ for Australia’s transport network?

Australians are finding a ‘new normal’ way of living with COVID-19 with health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to reshape society. The pandemic has transformed ‘work’ into a thing people do rather than a place to go. Change has been predominantly felt in the CBDs, with the vast majority of white-collar workforces able to work from home. For white-collar workforces, work trips tend to revolve around the use of public transport, especially when travelling to and from CBD’s.

COVID-19 has significantly changed the traditional workplace commute, both in terms of frequency and route, which could have a significant impact on the transport network in the new normal. Offices are fast becoming spaces needed for collaboration and interaction, rather than a 9am to 5pm workspace, with employers considering locating in suburban and regional centres as opposed to CBD and inner-metropolitan areas.

These trends are having an impact on when, where and how people travel to their workplace. During 2020 and 2021, a reduction in white-collar workforce trips drove a significant decline in public transport patronage, particularly to and from CBDs. With some people preferring to travel by car, and some people travelling further, this has exacerbated the congestion constraints already facing the road networks. For example, prior to COVID-19, Transurban’s Westlink M7 in Sydney experienced around 3.5 hours of congestion per day in peak hours. In November 2020, this had risen to 4.5 hours.

COVID-19 has also had a significant impact on the distribution of populations within and across states and territories. Working from home has increased demand for larger housing and has impacted on people’s willingness to accept longer commute times. People are choosing to live further away from where they work to take advantage of greater space and more cost-effective living – much of this inspired by the extensive pandemic lockdowns experienced in capital cities.

Interstate migration rates have varied across the country. Regional areas which experienced relatively less time in lockdown, have seen an influx of interstate migrants, while Sydney and Melbourne have experienced a decline in interstate migration. These trends are impacting property markets, particularly in regional and suburban areas. Median house prices have risen in the last year by up to 14 percent in Gosford on NSW’s Central Coast, and by over 12 percent in Geelong’s Armstrong Creek. Overall, house prices are expected to be 4 to 12 percent higher across the country in 2022 than if COVID-19 had not occurred.

Such trends are causing a redistribution of the resident population and require transport planners to reconsider whether current and planned investment adequately captures travel demand, and connects people to employment both now and into the future.

In the future, people are likely to maintain several of their new lifestyle changes, which may impact on the function and form of Australia’s future transport network. White-collar workforces will be more willing to live further from the city centre, altering route types and transport demand. Transport demand will remain unpredictable, disrupting the efficiency of service delivery and challenging route planning; at least until better data is available on the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on travel patterns.

Although it remains unclear what the new normal will look like for Australia, it is important to understand what changes could influence the long-term function and form of our transport networks.

Read our full report. Spreading the peak? COVID-19 and travel patterns.

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