Science and Technology

Kate Mackay on COVID-19 and transport


Kate is the Technical Director of Transport Planning at Mott Macdonald, and has had a career that has very much dealt with the concept of change within the transport sector. Who better to give a few thoughts on the changes now, and in the future, that stem from this current pandemic!

This is our second interview, we covered her career in last year’s Kate Mackay: Planning transport futures. Kate also recently facilitated our recent Mobility as a Service: Progress and new insights from an Australian trial .

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?

The most inspiring thing that I am seeing is a willingness to start to understand how we can better manage uncertainty. We’ve known for some time that our old ways of planning, our ‘predict and provide’ approach, is increasingly not fit for purpose. And we’ve known that we need to embrace a new vision led, ‘decide and provide’ approach.

But change is uncomfortable, changing the way we have always done things is uncomfortable, and changing such an established and accepted methodology will not be easy. COVID-19 has illustrated starkly that we can do things differently, that we can change, that habits can be broken. And specifically that we can start to manage and plan for uncertainty, we can embrace the opportunities, and not allow it to paralyse our planning.

What changes would you like to see in the transport sector when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

Considering this at a very practical level, I would like to see employers and other ‘trip ends’ (like schools, town centres, and shopping centres) taking a greater role in shaping travel demand. Lesson 101 in transport planning is that travel is a derived demand, and in our new world it is more important than ever we keep this front of mind.

A recent survey in New Zealand showed that most people are keen to keep working from home at least some of the time, but many feel that their employers won’t support it. Our Travel Demand Management programs – for city centres, for managing the impact of construction, for managing network capacity during major events – have always had a focus on employers. I hope that now, post pandemic, they will be considered as fully part of the solution to delivering the towns and cities that we want to live, work, and play in.

Employer’s policies and approach to working from home, to flexible start and finish times, to providing good end of trip facilities, to offering alternatives to driving alone; these things are essential if we are to grasp the opportunities this pandemic has highlighted – of reduced congestion, reduced pollution, clearer skies, more time spent with families. Government support and encouragement for this will be critical.

And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?

I hope that people will have adopted a different attitude towards walking, and cycling; towards using their local facilities; trusting people who work from home to be productive (if not more productive); and seeing value in the smaller and less tangible aspects of our lives.

I think that as some people become comfortable with operating in digital environment, buoyed by our zoom meetings and working from home, our values as we have known them (particularly in terms of how we value time spent travelling) may change. And we will need account for this change in user behaviour preference in all our planning.

I fear, however, that public transport patronage could be seriously threatened and the future sustainability of public transport is very much at risk. In the absence of any significant intervention, from Government or from employers, and given the high level of car ownership in Queensland and the relative availability of free and relatively inexpensive parking, I think many people may shift to driving rather than using buses or trains. This would result in a downward spiral of more congestion, expanded peak periods, and increase in transport related emissions.

I would like to think that in an effort to counter this more agile forms of transport like e-scooters, e-bikes, regular bikes, and walking will be promoted and supported (with infrastructure, with marketing, and with behaviour change initiatives), and become more widespread and much more commonly used.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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