Passenger Rail

Public transport use settling at new norm: Infrastructure Australia report

public transport

After COVID-19 lockdowns, public transport patronage has settled back at a ‘new norm’ of 60-70 per cent of pre-pandemic patronage, a new report from Infrastructure Australia has found.

With roughly 30 per cent of the total workforce working from home since March, and a third of those workers wishing to remain remote, public transport patronage patterns could permanently shift, said Infrastructure Australia chief executive Romilly Madew.

“In a reversal to the earlier trend of increasing public transport use, patronage in most cities fell to 10–30 per cent of normal levels in the initial lockdown and settled at a ‘new norm’ of 60–70 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels. Traffic levels rebounded quickly, along with an uplift in second-hand car purchases, potentially indicating that higher car mode share may persist for some time”

While the report, Infrastructure beyond COVID-19: A national study on the impacts of the pandemic on Australia, found that Australia’s infrastructure, including rail networks, had responded well to the disruption of COVID-19, the post-pandemic landscape presents new challenges and opportunities.

The present report will inform the recommendations of the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan which will provide a roadmap for the infrastructure sector to support recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madew noted that the continuation of infrastructure construction activity supported the nation’s economic recovery.

“The continuation of infrastructure construction across major projects was a key source of economic activity and employment during the pandemic, and ensured we took advantage of the three-year pause in population growth.”

With jurisdictions around Australia coming out of the immediate pandemic response phase, major cities such as Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth have seen public transport patronage stabilise, rather than increase to the pre-pandemic base-line.

While rail has recovered more than other modes in Sydney, low office occupancy levels in the CBD of the nation’s largest city, currently sitting well below 50 per cent, suggest that a concerted return to public transport may be a way off, and that travelling patterns may shift significantly.

Earlier this week, Transport for NSW increased capacity on public transport, with a Waratah train carriage now able to carry up to 86 people per carriage.

COO of TfNSW Howard Collins said that the agency was adding thousands of extra services to enable commuters to travel safely.

“There are three simple steps for a COVID safe public transport trip – plan ahead and check physical distancing capacity, wear a mask and find a green dot,” he said.

“Enhanced cleaning continues with 1,600 extra cleaners employed and 1.5 million extra cleaning hours carried out since March 2020, while extra staff continue to help customers move through busy stations and interchanges in a COVID safe way.”

COVID-19 has accelerated other trends, including an increase in digital technology in public transport customer offerings.

The report suggests that a flattening of the peak will occur, and that public transport operators could consider all-day timetables, rather than focusing on increasing peak capacity.

“The pandemic put Australia’s infrastructure to the test. However, this report found that compared to other OECD countries, our infrastructure networks are relatively resilient, our service providers are adaptable and our communities are responsive to change,” said Madew.

“Across sectors, we found that Australia’s governments and infrastructure providers navigated dramatic changes to community behaviour and network requirements, and rapidly adjusted their service provision.”

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