Science and Technology

Transport system resilience and pandemics

Transport system resilience

As the pandemic rolls on, the lessons accrue from our enforced period of learning. It has tested the resilience of our transport systems and it continues to do so. The prospect of further pandemic challenges remain on the horizon, and the need to be prepared is greater than ever.

This article looks at resilience as it relates to transport systems in a pandemic situation. This is particularly public transport but also roads and streets.

A significant amount of research has been published on transport and resilience and much has been published on planning for pandemics. However very little looks at how pandemics might impact on our transport systems and how to plan for this. Transport resilience can be described as follows:

… resilience is the capability to recover from a disruption to an operational level similar to prior to the disruption in a timely manner. The longer and deeper the impact of the disruption on operations, the less resilient a transport system is.” (Geography of Transport Systems)

There are also notable issues with pandemic plans that are available. This includes not recognising other existing plans; being duplicative; overlapping responsibilities in some cases and gaps in others; and many are based on assumption that national economies are self-reliant. They conclude: “transportation systems, due to their nature and operations are facing radically different impacts and mitigation strategies.

The Geography of Transport Systems, 5th Edition: B.19 – Transportation and Pandemics

Why not consider pandemics?

The lack of transport resilience plans and research relating to pandemics may in part be due to how hard they are to conceptualise. Pandemics are fundamentally different from most other impacts in both duration and reach. By definition, a pandemic is global in scale, with impacts varying geographically and in intensity.

As with the current pandemic, the impacts occur in waves as infections increase or decrease. Pandemics also tend to be measured in years, not days, weeks, or even months. Modern-era planning is also very difficult when there has not been much experience with pandemics over the past 100 years.

The current situation

As we are just over a year into the pandemic there hasn’t been very much time for meaningful research on transport resiliency in the face of a pandemic. Nor has there been much time for resiliency plans to be amended to include impacts from pandemics. Most transport agencies, particularly public transport (PT) providers, are faced with a situation few had anticipated. They have been left scrambling to deal with the immediate and shifting impacts on their transport networks, leaving very little time for longer-term planning.

There have been many studies initiated (iMOVE’s Work from Home suite of projects being just a few examples) to increase understanding of impact and how we can use this understanding to improve both disruption planning and our ongoing business-as-usual transport network planning and management.

A host of reports and think pieces from organisations and consulting companies have also emerged over the last year, including:

How can public transport become more resilient?

Public transport providers are faced with declining ridership as passengers fear contracting COVID-19 by using the bus, train or tram. An analysis of Apple Mobility Trends using average trends for 27-30 January 2021 found that public transport has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels in any capital city except for Adelaide. In the three largest capital cities, public transport (as a percent of the 13 Jan 2020 baseline) use was 72.8% in Sydney, 73.9% in Melbourne and 93.4% in Brisbane.

There are several aspects to the low public transport ridership. First, there are more people working from home which lessens transport of any kind. Second is that former public transport riders are now using cars. Again, examining Apple Mobility Trends for 27-30 January 2021, driving in all capital cities now exceeds pre-pandemic levels. For Sydney driving is now 108.5% above pre-pandemic levels, 105.6% in Melbourne and 116.2% in Brisbane.

Less public transport use equates into significant budget shortfalls — both in the short-to-medium term and potentially long term. The shift to car use would also likely result in increased congestion problems, already a large source of angst in Australia’s urban areas. At issue is if the pandemic will result in long-lasting changes to commuting behaviour. Should this occur, transport agencies are forced to rethink how they adapt and survive.

A quick global overview shows that the strategies vary widely from country to country. Some of the strategies include:

  • cutting public transport services due to funding shortfalls
  • increasing service frequencies to prevent crowding in an effort to attract riders back to public transport
  • rigorous cleaning of public transport buses, trains and trams
  • requiring masks for all public transport users
  • seeking revenue from other sources like the petrol tax which is being considered by some US public transport providers

What are transport departments and agencies doing to become more resilient?

There is global concern about the growth in car use by those who previously used public transport. Some of the strategies being considered have been around for at least a decade or more but have never been widely implemented, however COVID-19 may change this.

Two of the strategies use pricing to control automobile use. The first is congestion charging which charges drivers wanting to enter the central city. The idea was first implemented several decades ago by Singapore and has subsequently been used in London, Stockholm and a number of other cities.

The second strategy is vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) charging. Under the strategy, drivers are charged a fee for each kilometre driven. This strategy has been widely debated over the past decade but has not been implemented.

Other strategies being implemented include expansion of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. In some cases, this has meant converting automobile lanes to bicycle and/or pedestrian lanes.

Finally, some cities are rethinking their land use plans in light of the fact that more people permanently working from home might become the norm, rather than a short-term trend (for instance, Perth / Western Australia and Brisbane). This could shift the focus of planning and infrastructure efforts to suburban activity centres and away from the urban core.

Overcoming the challenges

In short, we are still on a steep learning curve about how to manage transport in a pandemic situation and minimise the unwanted wider impacts on society. Perhaps the very nature of our transport systems and what it means to be resilient as we would traditionally understand it, is being challenged. We will explore more of what is being learnt in future articles.

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