COVID-19’s impact on Sydney’s transport

Posted: April 15, 2020 in Transport
Tags: , , ,

VIDEO: Transport for NSW COVID-19 Response: Essential Service (23 March 2020)

Social distancing has seen the movement of people in Sydney drop by about 90% in recent weeks. The Citymapper Mobility Index shows mobility beggining to slow on the weekend of Saturday 14 March, shortly after the government announced its first set of restrictions, but before those restrictions came into effect on the following Monday. Transport agencies have since responded in order to enable the safe movement of people around the city, whether that be by car, by foot, or by public transport.

In terms of road traffic, a comprehensive ABC article uses Google Maps traffic data to show that “peak-hour gridlock has virtually vanished”, with the same article using TomTom Traffic Index data to show a trip that typically takes 30 minutes would now take 26 minutes. The same TomTom Traffic Index shows the biggest drop occurring during peak-hour, with only a minor drop in off-peak road travel. Transurban, which owns most of Sydney’s toll roads, has reported a 36% drop in traffic volumes on its toll roads in the final week of March.

Push buttons in CBD pedestrian crossings have been automated since Monday 23 March, to prevent these normally high touch surfaces from becoming transmission zones for COVID-19. This is a limited time change and was restricted to the Sydney CBD.

Public transport usage has likewise seen a dramatic drop. Occupancy data published by NextThere for the 4 weeks to Sunday 22 March show demand for real time planning journeys began falling on Tuesday 10 March and was down to about half their regular volumes by the end of that 4 week period. Meanwhile, during that time peak-hour trains on the T1 Western Line went from over three quarters being standing room only to none being standing room only (see image below, Source: NextThere). Bus occupancy levels appear to have also fallen in the same time period, with the proportion of peak-hour buses passing through Neutral Bay Junction on the North Shore’s Military Road corridor with a majority of their seats available rising from about one in three buses to almost all buses.

Other than minor changes to the L1 light rail line, the government has yet to cut back on service levels; which combined with the fall in patronage has enabled members of the public who must travel on public transport to better observe social distancing when they do so. Additional changes include regular deep cleaning of public transport vehicles, a suspension on the sale of single use Opal tickets from buses, and closure of Opal readers and seats near bus drivers.

Despite this, there are actions that have been taken elsewhere which have not happened in Sydney. The most extreme of these responses occurred in the Chinese city of Wuhan, believed to be the epicentre of COVID-19, which suspended its public transport network in late January. Brisbane has moved to rear door boarding on its buses, with the front door only available for passengers requiring assistance and to maintain disability access. Advocacy group Walk Sydney is calling for the automation of push buttons to be extended to all of Greater Sydney. So far the automation is being extended out to crossings near many of Sydney’s hospitals, but not the entire city.

  1. Except for the use of public transport:

    10 Mar 2020
    Impact of Corona Virus similar to some earlier peak oil scenarios

    In the last 4 weeks it got worse. It gives us a foretaste of a cascading system failure when fuels become scarce. That can happen when – due to low oil prices – the oil industry goes to its knees just like the airline industry. The next candidates are airports and toll-ways. The Corona virus kills basically all artificial growth which happened after the 2008 oil price shock and which was supported by money printing (quantitative easing)

    The NSW government, however, thinks they can continue business as usual “on the other side”. Dominic Perrottet said on Easter Monday he will implement the $100 bn infrastructure plan, including the 2nd Sydney airport, for which Prime Minister Morrison announced the start of major earthworks on 11 March 2020. I wish him good luck.

    Bush fires, drought, XPT derailment, Corona Virus and still these government haven’t understood there are limits to growth

  2. Hisashi says:

    I wonder if we could use this as an opportunity to widen the footpaths, or change some of the traffic/parking lanes into new bicycle/bus lanes while extending others existing ones. More ambitiously, can we close off and get rid of the Cahill Expressway?

    Also, does anyone wants to start a map mark-up of where you think bus/bicycle lanes should be extended?

  3. Tandem Train Rider says:

    Hi Everyone,

    I think it’s probably a good idea that I post here, as I kinda of asked @banbul to make this post. There are a lot of things I could write about, so I’ll try and stay focused on COV19’s impact on public transport and the medium and longer term.

    But before I do let me say that I’m a life long supporter of public transport. I believe it’s not just a social equity service (a leftie idea), but about freedom of movement (a right wing idea), that people should be free to go about their business *without* needing to use a car. But I think more than anything – far more than the economy or life expectancy – COV19 is going have a detrimental impact of Public Tansport. And I F*****G HATE it.

    Many people, not just the two posters here before me, see COV19 as an opportunity to reshape the world the way they would prefer it. I’d prefer to see more public and active transport, in particular rail because … well … I like trains, the bigger the better. But I fear that’s probably not going to happen.

    Short Term:
    I’d prefer not to get into debates about the partisan politics of COV19 – I think it’s way too significant and fast moving a problem for our traditional democratic institutions to properly deal with. So I’ll make a few points about this disease that not everyone agrees with – or more accurately – a lot of people would prefer not to be true. These are:

    a) SARSCOV2 is far more contagious than the common cold.

    b) COV19 is unacceptably lethal – and some people who recover may well have life long complications. We can’t just ignore it.

    c) None of the approaches to dealing with it can be expected to work. This included Eradication (very hard), herd immunity (prior infection may not provide sufficient or long enough lasting immunity), vaccine (as the lethal element of COV19 is an auto-immune response, as vaccine might not be possible/safe – same issue with HIV)

    d) 1.5m (It’s 2m almost everywhere else in the world) is a compromise, between what is know to be safe, and what might be safer but is not too inconvenient. IMHO it’s a bit like limiting outdoor gathering to less than 500 people.

    At the moment, all we can say with confidence is the maximum safe number of people in a single room is 1. And that’s not 1 new person every 15 minutes, It’s one person in the same room, lift, taxi, bus, train carriage, drivers cab, control room etc.

    So, on that basis alone, I think all public transport should be shut down (at least in the short term).

    Further, the only jurisdictions to have successfully contained outbreaks so far shut down public transport: China in Wuhan and South Korea in Dengue City. In my view, PT is only “low risk” to the extent that the risk of any individual using PT is itself low. ATM, the only safe way for people to travel is alone in their own car. And I F*****G HATE this, but it’s a more than inconvenient truth.

    Would this be inconvenient? Hell yes. And for me (no car, live in regional town/far urban fringes) far more than most. But I’m not an essential services worker and for me loss of public transport is *very* inconvenient, but it’s just that: inconvenient. There are very few people who are both essential, and for which PT is equally essential. And for those few, there are a hundred other non-essential people in households with more than one car that are not being used, and if the are, not for anything essential.

    So that’s my agenda for short term public transport. Shut it all down.

    a) Organise a car load/hire scheme for truly essential workers. Change parking rules/ownership/restrictions to ensure every cleaner who works at a hospital has a parking space, such as that of the chief administrator (who’s car has been load to a nurses aid) works from home.

    b) Organise designated drivers among the swathes of newly unemployed people with cars to get the elderly and other non-drivers to essential medical appointments.

    It’s possible to organise alternatives and triage it appropriately. But it’s not reasonable to assume a market mechanism can reasonably re-allocate resources in this way, especially given the uncertainties of the length of time these changes might be required.

  4. Tandem Train Rider says:

    2a) Medium Term: Service Delivery

    I think it has to go beyond everyone wearing masks and coughing into their elbows.

    Vehicle fitout:

    Busses are an obvious problem, lots of people in close proximity. But the drivers are particularly at risk (they have lots of contacts), and also pose a particular risk to their passengers as a consequence. So, air tight compartments for drivers, limits on the number of passengers per bus (10 probably, 20 tops).

    Aircon needs to be replaced with forced ventilation. Passenger windows need to open, or perhaps be permanently open.

    For rail I thought a return to compartments. 2+2 facing seats in each compartment, and can only be occupied simultaneously by members of the same household. On Sydney Train that would mean 5 on each side of each deck, and perhaps 4 in each vestibule, so maybe 200 per train. Obviously this has significant capacity implications.

    Some sort of method of decontaminating the surfaces in a used compartments needs to be devised too. Automated self cleaning toilet style? Leave a bottle of detergent in each one and let the passengers do it themselves? Have a team of workers in hazmat suits clean the train at the end of each run?

    Stopping patterns:
    To prevent people congregating on platforms, stopping patterns need to be simplified, preferably to 1 per platform.
    Ideally you don’t want someone potentially contaminating a compartment by using a train to travel from Mortdale up to Hurstville to do their shopping. Stopping patterns should have reduced stops, and focus the service on longer distance and more point to point type routes.
    More parking (and I F*****G HATE this) needs to be provided at major stations by opening up currently dis-used sporting fields for the purpose.

    All of this has devastating implications for the productivity of public transport, and rail in particular.

    Contact Tracing:
    I think everyone will need to have their contract tracing app installed (and your identity verified by facial recognition software) just to board a bus or enter a train station. And if you’ve accumulated too many recent primary and secondary contacts, and thus too much risk, you won’t be allowed past the barriers.

    2b) Demand

    Wherever we end up in 6 months time, it’s highly likely that for at least the next few years, everyone who can work from home, will. Everyone who can drive somewhere, will. PT has often been maligned as a stop gap for the poor and undeserving. I think that attitude is likely to return with gusto, in no small part because it will have a lot of truth to it. PT will return to being transport of last resort.

    More than most, office workers can work from home, and more than most, office workers dominate CBDs and rail PT users. The demand for traditional peak hour transport to a central hub – the sort of transport rail is best at servicing and by necessity focuses on delivering, will be particularly diminished, perhaps permanently.

  5. Tandem Train Rider says:

    3) Longer Term

    One way or another, I expect COV19 is going to force big changes on Australia’s demographics.

    Our population will cease growing via immigration for quite a while, we’ll also have less temporary workers and students for quite some time, possibly decades. Even without that, after an extended period in isolation, and the prospect of future similar lockdowns should there be future waves of COV19, the inconvenience of a stand alone house and land on the city fringes are going to seem minor compared with the hell of living in isolation for months on end in a 2 bedroom shoe box.

    If things go badly, and we end up with an endemic disease that takes a percentage of our population each year (a highly possible outcome), humans – like most animals – fall back on the option of out-breeding it. With shorter lifespans we make up for it with larger families. And that too means more people wanting houses with a back yard, and less a shoebox close to the theatre.

    People are going to *want* to move to lower density urban environments, upending a decades long trend. I can’t see much in the way of new apartments being in Australia built for a long time. It think this means more outer suburban commuting.

    But (and I F*****G HATE this), commuting to de-centralised business estates with enough parking for everyone, and enough space for people to practice extreme social distancing. There will be *no* public transport, indeed employers might face the consequences of industrial manslaughter laws if even they do anything to assist it, such as building a bus shelter outside their premises.

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