Most of our cities are on a one-way trajectory to being choked with ever increasing traffic congestion. A simple calculation of annual population growth, coupled with our love affair with the car, results in a relatively predictable future of gridlock. Building infrastructure alone will not solve this wicked problem, but sometimes a major event or disruption presents an opportunity to try something new. That is exactly what happened when one of the world's most densely populated cities, London, was able to cut road traffic by 15 per cent during the 2012 Olympic Games and even managed to sustain most of that reduction after the Games.
This significant cut in road traffic was achieved despite 700 000 ticket holders moving around London on the busiest day of the Games, as companies embraced working remotely and a record-breaking 60 million passengers used the Tube for transport.
The primary reason for this success? A change in travel habits. The London 2012 transport strategy saw a flattening of the peak hour that was largely sustained post-Olympics by 11 percent of regular London travellers. It was an opportunity to flatten the peak: the Brits took it and locked it in.
COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century pandemic, facilitating a worldwide change in travel habits. Has this created the disruption needed for a redesign of transport systems, and a chance to guide our cities to better legacy outcomes?
In the space of a few short months, we have changed the conversation from where we work to how and when we work. As social distancing mandated by most governments has steeply reduced travel into and out of major cities, transport peaks have flattened on major metropolitan arterial routes all over the world.
Human behaviour has tamed one of the most expensive habits on the planet: the peak-hour commute. In a post-COVID world, will we take this opportunity to unlock the performance of our transport networks, or will we snap back to the default of peak-hour saturation and all the lost productivity and lost time that goes with it?
The costs of a congested daily commute go beyond the massive capital and operating costs of physical infrastructure and include the downtime of sitting in traffic, missed family and social time, productivity reductions, and environmental costs.
Reports from the Grattan Institute and Infrastructure Victoria are just two of the most recent analyses of a global problem created by vast urban sprawl and the persistent gap between where people live and work.
We are observing many areas where productivity remains high and the increasing trust and efficiency has been allowed to prove itself because of a government mandated change. As road and rail systems in major cities have become significantly de-stressed, in some areas people are already marvelling at air quality improvements.
How do we keep the best elements of these silver linings when traffic increases again?
Re-building and re-imagining
We can use a period of broken habits to build new ones. What if we challenge the idea that we all must travel to a workplace every day? How many people must be at a workplace? Why does the entire workforce have to arrive and depart en masse?
A major threat to liveability in our cities is if population growth and associated transport demand outpaces infrastructure capacity. Governments around the world invest significantly in infrastructure, but often this can only be justified in response to an existing problem, creating a lag between the need and response.
In some cases, these projects cause commuters further delays and frustration until works are finished, only to have the infrastructure meet its projected peaks within a matter of months. Could COVID-19 enable a radical shift in thinking where we put more focus on the demand element of the equation?
Could governments proactively work with businesses to incentivise working from home, trialling new blended working models that allow agencies to optimise infrastructure already in place rather than continuously chasing our tails?
Travel demand management often refers to four pillars of behaviour change: re-time, re-route, re-mode and reduce. If governments can incentivise businesses to shift or stagger working hours, then re-timing or reduction of trips will make public and private transport more effective.
As well as working with businesses to inspire change, we'll need a better understanding of user needs, better data, and better communication: the more information we can provide people, the better equipped they will be to make alternative transport choices.
Management strategies could include improving communication – for instance the project owners of Sydney's Metro Tunnel use of messaging systems to let travellers know their trip is delayed or more crowded due to disruption.
Another example could be a proactive app service that advises commuters if the upcoming train is full, and suggests other options – a nearby, less full bus route, or bike hire with a coffee voucher to incentivise usage. Indeed, these measures both support necessary social distancing in any transition out of COVID-19 and better utilise whole transport networks going forward.
Instinctively, we think that human behaviour drives the need for roads and railway construction, but smart infrastructure also influences human behaviour. Right now, there is an opportunity to take what we know and what we can influence about changing mobility habits and build into strategic planning, transport policy, operations and new and upgraded transport infrastructure. In doing so, we have the chance to make more efficient use of our infrastructure spend, while improving quality of life.
Some examples of how transport infrastructure will be adapted in response to the pandemic includes the New Zealand government's plan to widen footpaths, the addition of temporary bike lanes in New York, Vancouver and Berlin, and other cities' plans to improve cycling and walking infrastructure to help people more easily maintain social distance. These measures both support a transition out of current COVID-19 restrictions, but also a chance to influence meaningful and sustained mode shift as a legacy outcome.
The flip side
Will people want to use public transport as we ease out of COVID-19 restrictions? Will people want to squeeze onto busy trains and buses if they are concerned about potential infection? Could we see demand for private vehicles and the acceleration of AV development increase, because these options offer a more private and therefore 'safer' space?
Without proactively capturing this opportunity for behaviour change, we are at risk of only increasing road congestion and cementing this as the new normal. Indeed, data out of China already shows in some areas toll road usage is up by approximately 20 per cent compared to before COVID-19.
The longer we maintain rules on self-isolation and social distancing, the more the fear of proximity to strangers will deepen and this will hit public transport. What are the incentives we could ask people to think about now? What could we ask people to think about in terms of their mobility decisions? What can governments do to help the public make proactive decisions around public and active transport?
The question of what we do post-COVID is a challenge that should not fall on the shoulders of government alone; engineers, designers, architects, town planners, financiers and land developers will have to step into the post-COVID dynamic, as will employers and employees.
It will be up to us all to ensure that whatever good comes of this epidemic is not only captured in new transport infrastructure, but in the way we use it. And that will start with how we live and how we work.