Transit habits shift as virus moves through

22/10/2020 - 08:00

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COVID-19 has changed the way we move around, but are those behaviours likely to persist? Business News investigates in part four of our WFH series.

Public transport patronage is yet to return to pre-COVID levels. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Before the pandemic, few of us would have thought twice about gripping the straps while standing on a train, pushing the stop button on a bus, or tapping a SmartRider.

But when confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Western Australia hit 400 by the end of March, avoiding communal touch points was widely accepted as part of good hygiene practice to avoid the virus, along with regular application of hand sanitiser and social distancing measures.

At the time, catching public transport became less of a cost-effective convenience and more of a health risk, despite authorities significantly ramping up routine cleaning practices.

By the end of March, the government mandated pandemic-related restrictions such as caps on public gatherings, and encouraged businesses and students to work from home.

Not surprisingly, that had a detrimental effect on the state’s public transport network.

Across the entire Transperth system (bus, train and ferry) total boardings plummeted to a near 20-year low in April to 1.8 million: the lowest level recorded on the Public Transport Authority of WA's publicly available dataset, which dates back to 2003.

In PTA’s annual report, managing director Mark Burgess outlined how daily patronage had dropped every day from early March, bottoming at 12 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels through most of the second week of April.

Numbers bounced back in May and June, but only slightly, resulting in about 30 million fewer trips for the 2019-20 financial year, which translated to a $36 million decrease in public transport user charges and fees.

Comparing January user numbers with those in April, ferry services recorded the largest percentage decline in trips (91 per cent), followed by train trips (84 per cent) and bus boardings (78 per cent).

Numbers improved as COVID-19 restrictions eased, but are yet to return to pre-COVID levels (see graph).

PTA said Transperth services were temporarily scaled down in April in response to declining patronage, but full services had since resumed.

“For a number of months now, patronage has stabilised, between 75 and 78 per cent of the previous year’s patronage,” a PTA spokesperson said.

“However, we know that many people have elected to, or been asked to, work from home, have made other arrangements for their travel, or have experienced a change of circumstances like loss of employment.

“While there has been a decline in public transport patronage, it is an essential service and it would be unrealistic – particularly considering strong patronage recovery to date – to think it will not survive COVID.”

Pandemic driver

While public transport use is down, other data sources suggest car use is up.

Multinational technology company Apple has been publishing daily reports of mobility trends, based on users’ de-identified requests for directions in Apple Maps.

Recording the change in routing requests since January 13 2020, Perth-based map requests for car routes, which includes use by rideshare service drivers, was up 9 per cent in mid-October.

Walking was down 10 per cent and transit remained down 26 per cent.

Car park usage around the CBD can help paint a clearer picture.

While not wanting to publicly disclose exact car park occupancy numbers, a Wilson Parking spokesperson said parking was an integral part of the CBD’s ecosystem, and the company had introduced initiatives to make its services more accessible.

Meanwhile, Australian technology startup BaseUp said there had been a significant increase in Perth users.

BaseUp helps commercial property owners and tenants manage their car bays by automating the management and reallocation of parking in office buildings via its SaaS platform.

The platform enables office tenants to ‘gift’ parking to other people, share parking, or put their parking (if not in use) in a pool to be bookable by other staff members.

BaseUp director and co-founder Jack Perkins said its Perth clientele pre-COVID, which included six buildings along St Georges Terrace, recorded 76 per cent utilisation.

That number was now sitting at about 93 per cent, which Mr Perkins said showed people’s clear desire to drive to work, but also indicated parking was potentially advantageous to businesses in incentivising staff to return to the CBD.

“There is a huge demand, and in terms of our numbers, on a national level, Perth is by far the busiest state, so occupancy levels, utilisation is at the highest,” Mr Perkins told Business News.

“I think it [working from home] will definitely shift the way in which people interact with transport.

“These tenants and owners are looking for the ability to adapt to that, so if tenants are saying they’re only going to come in for a certain number of days, then they need the tech and tools to be able to cater to that.”

WA has more registered cars per capita than NSW, Victoria or Queensland, according to the Motor Vehicle Use Survey.

But for those who can’t afford a car and need to travel to work at least some days, public transport remains a necessity.

Future transit

If investment is any indicator of the future, the state government is betting on the longevity of WA’s public transport network, committing more than $8 billion in funding to transport projects over the next four years.

It is also banking on a more bicycle-friendly future; last month it allocated $105 million to implement the Greater Perth CBD Transport Plan, which includes upgrades to the bike lanes along Roe and Aberdeen streets as well as Kings Park’s shared path, in an attempt to encourage more people to consider cycling, walking or catching public transport throughout the Perth CBD.

Cycling has traditionally been limited due to Perth’s suburban sprawl.

However, one in six Western Australians rides a bicycle in a typical week, a figure 5 per cent higher than the national average, according to Domain.

With the right public infrastructure – transport and housing – cyclist commuters could become more common.

For the immediate future, however, as the International Growth Centre (a London-based research institute) highlighted in a recent blog, public transport is an economic necessity.

“Economic evidence suggests that reducing accessibility is likely to increase unemployment, weaken access to opportunities, and hurt overall urban productivity,” it said.

“Governments are therefore faced with a very difficult challenge: they need to protect the survival of public transport whilst also ensuring safe mobility during COVID-19.”

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