Will cities and PT bounce back after COVID-19?

This is a follow-up on my post about the roadmap out of COVID.

Now I’m pondering the longer term: after COVID has gone.

Assuming a successful vaccine comes in at some point, and things like masks and physical distancing are no longer required, will we all go back to how it was before?

There’s been some interesting commentary from some well informed people on possible long term effects on cities, the inner areas/CBDs specifically – on employment, which of course relates directly to travel demand and public transport.

This seems to sum up the majority view:

I’m of the opinion that work patterns will permanently change. I think that people will learn that Work From Home works, and that connectivity through (video chat) works… and that will change our (patronage) volume.

I think that has some benefits, because I think that will flatten our peaks, and that’s always the expensive part of transit, providing that last (extra) bus in the peak hour – the most unproductive part of the service.

Dick Alexander from Transdev North America (15 minutes in)

That’s a view from North America, but it’s very relevant to Melbourne.

Peak demand is what drives much of the investment in transport. Think of the biggest transport projects in Melbourne – the metro tunnel, North East Link, the West Gate Tunnel, the High Capacity Metro Trains (and all their enabling works) – they’re all targeted at increasing capacity, which is most stretched during peak. (The motorways of course, are unlikely to achieve lasting congestion benefits.)

Work at home, or in the office?

Many white collar jobs are being done from home right now. But there is still value in face-to-face collaboration – including establishing working relationships with new people, and activities such as fast-paced brainstorming sessions.

So I expect that once everything’s safe again (and masks are no longer necessary in workplaces), many people will return to the office… but perhaps only part time.

Employers may realise they get better productivity if people don’t have the daily grind of the commute every single day. And they may be able to cut costs because they don’t need as much office space as before.

All of this would mean a long-lasting dip in travel demand. Some predictions say that PT ridership will only get back to 75% of normal.

But longer term, there is a view that growth in cities like Melbourne will continue:

It is important, however, to maintain a longer-term perspective. We shouldn’t be too negative and consumed by the short term. The big picture is Victoria is still a great place to live and work and raise a family and in two years’ time, Victoria is going to be back on a growth path.’

John Wylie, quoted in The Age
Williams Landing station, 3pm

Part time commuters

If large numbers of people switch to only going into the office part time, that obviously has implications.

Fewer 5-day-a-week commuters obviously means less overall travel demand in peak, taking the heat out of overcrowding.

If long term growth is set to continue, capacity upgrades will still be needed. But the patronage change would effectively be a pause, a some breathing space allowing authorities get ahead, rather than lagging behind as they have often done in the past.

(Authorities have wanted for ages to somehow achieve a cooling of peak demand. I’m not sure a sudden 90+% drop in patronage was quite what they had in mind.)

Part time commuting will also mean a move away from fare products such as Passes, in favour of pay-as-you-go (in Melbourne terms, Myki Money), especially for people who don’t use public transport often for non-work trips.

Many trips may move to off-peak, increasing demand through the day. Public transport networks like Melbourne’s, where the service frequency is heavily skewed to peak hour, will need to re-balance, and provide more capacity and better frequency all day.

All day high frequency would encourage the shift to off-peak. And the good news is – it’s relatively cheap because it can be largely achieved using existing fleets and infrastructure.

Off-peak fare discounts could help the shift. Given Myki copes with V/Line off-peak discounts, there shouldn’t be huge technical hurdles to this.

There also needs to be a bigger focus on suburban services (which in Melbourne are mostly served by infrequent buses) to support all the people in workplaces right across the metropolitan area.

Some suburban workplaces have been far worse hit by COVID-19 than CBD jobs, because those jobs sometimes aren’t so easy to perform at home. Better PT would help aid economic recovery by cutting the number of cars required for households as they return to those jobs.

Footbridge, Princes Bridge, MCG, Melbourne

The CBD is not just for workers

Ultimately it looks like the central city will recover and the growth will return, even if people are commuting part time.

Importantly, the CBD (or CAD – Central Activities District as it’s sometimes known) is not just about office workers. There are local residents, there’s shopping, there are restaurants and events and entertainment venues, and any number of other reasons to go there. This will all help cities, and public transport, bounce back.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

7 replies on “Will cities and PT bounce back after COVID-19?”

Very interesting blog, thanks. I think you are correct that life will return to normal(ish) but the return to normal work patterns and locations will take longer.
When you say workers are more productive without the grind of public transport do you mean this is because they effectively start work earlier and finish later (more time on the job) or do you mean they are less distracted working from home so their quality/output per hour worked increases?
I can’t wait to get back in the office rather than zoom etc.

“Part time commuting will also mean a move away from fare products such as Passes”

I hope this means that Myki will make it easier to get a refund on a Pass. I bought a pass for $50 but then never got to use it because of all the lockdowns. PTV says that the only way to get a refund on it is to send the whole Myki card back, which is honestly the dumbest and most ridiculous utter nonsense I’ve heard from them. Is their system seriously so incompetent that they can’t just refund the Pass on a regular Myki card without having to destroy the entire card?

Their current system makes no sense – let’s hope this whole situation forces them to re-consider and get their act together.

> Part time commuting will also mean a move away from fare products such as Passes, in favour of pay-as-you-go (in Melbourne terms, Myki Money)

Which will intensify the equity question – why should passes be discounted?

A seven day pass is exactly the same cost as 10 two hour Myki money fares – it’s set so that you got the weekend free if you travelled five days a week. Another way of looking at this is that the weekly fare was set assuming that most people only used their ticket to go to work or school on five days.

It’s been like that for at least 30 years, and probably way, way, longer. There’s nothing magical, though, about five days. Why not four days, or three? It’s just as arbitrary. It’s just that 20 years ago most people work steadily in one place Monday to Friday. I’m not sure how true this assumption is now, and is likely to be way less true in the future.

In the past longer periodical tickets were cheaper than multiple weeklies, but this simply took into account that most commuters had four weeks annual leave. From memory, a yearly would be equal to 240*daily fare (240=5 days*48 weeks), and quarterlies were pro-rata. The value of monthlies was very complex – they were date to date (i.e. a full month, which could vary in length from 28 to 31 days).

The modern Myki passes give an even greater discount. A monthly (28 days) is equivalent to 16.8 daily fares (three and a bit free days, on top of the free weekends). A yearly (365 days) is 195 daily fares (65 free days on top of the free weekends – or 45 free days if you take into account 20 days annual leave that you might not use your pass).

It’s not clear why you get such large discounts. Originally the argument for discounted ‘commutation’ fares was that the passenger paid up front (like all rating decisions in the US this was likely to be only half the story). This argument completely disappears with Myki, of course. You could put as much Myki Money on a card as a Pass would cost, but you won’t get a discount.

Fundamentally, passes discriminate against the poor. The less income you have, the harder it is to raise the necessary lump sum of money to pay for your fares upfront. The poorest have no choice but to pay-as-they-go and pay a higher price for their travel, particularly as they are more likely to use public transport on weekends as well as weekdays. That doesn’t seem fair. You could abolish passes. This would mean higher prices for the people that currently can afford to pay upfront. But the additional income could be used to lower the pay-as-you-go fares and benefit those passengers.

@Roger, no, I mean some people are likely to be more productive during work time if they don’t have two sometimes grueling long commutes every day.

Obviously different people view home vs office work differently.

@andrew, a 7-day/weekly pass has cost the same as 5 days of travel since 10×2 Metcards, which are what Myki Money is based on. But before that, a weekly was about 4.3 days of individual daily tickets, making it slightly more compelling.

Melbourne’s monthly fares are actually pretty high compared to some European cities. Last time I looked (some years ago), the monthly fare in places like Zurich and Paris was around the cost of 10 daily fares, and some were even cheaper.

I’m not sure the argument of prepayment completely disappears under Myki. A monthly Pass is up around $160, and a year is more than $1500 – no Myki Money user is likely to keep anywhere near that kind of balance loaded on their card, so PT authorities aren’t going to earn the sort of interest that they do from 30-365 day Pass.

Discounts for buying in bulk are not unique to public transport fares of course. Prepayment is one factor, and trying to encourage brand loyalty is another… but I do wonder if there’s been any solid research into it.

I do think the 7 day Myki Pass should probably be replaced with a fare cap. It’s built into the Myki software, and it’s the sort of change that reduces anxiety around fare choices and best value for money.

Did you mention it recently? What a perfect opportunity for the gov to get rid of the Free Tram Zone.
75% return to pre COVID levels sounds good to me.

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