The Fence

Tony Canavan on COVID-19 and transport

When I interviewed Tony last year, he was based in Melbourne, and was the Oceania Government Transport Leader at EY. Since February this year he has moved to Singapore, and is now EY’s Global Transport Leader, Government and Public Sector.

Tony told us about his role and career path in transport in Tony Canavan: Lives local, thinks global, and also wrote an article for Government and the new mobility ecosystem.

I approached Tony for his thoughts on just how much COVID-19 has changed and will change the transport and freight sectors, and it’s no surprise that he has a few thoughts on the topic!

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

The remarkably rapid changes in business models, service delivery and ways of living as business and people adapt. A friend in the UK told me it was easier to organise a doctor’s appointment than before the pandemic because the appointments are all being done quickly over the phone.

My regular bar here in Singapore is closed, but they brought my favourite cocktails to my door, pre-mixed. We’ve read multiple accounts of bricks and mortar businesses seeing huge increases in online sales. And of course, there is the working from home revolution. How much of society, of commerce, of our daily habits will snap back to what they were before, and how much will linger?

Of course, while many in the world luxuriate in the clean air all this stillness has brought us, it has also reminded us of the symbiotic relationship between mobility and economic activity. When people and goods don’t move, economic activity slumps. What transport planners now have to figure out, is has the intensity of that relationship altered?

And there appears to be a reawakening of our local neighbourhood. How many people have told me of the walking trails they never knew were there (lazy sods!), or the empathy and loyalty they now feel for their local traders. I see this reawakening, but I’m not sure if it means anything long-term. Time will tell. It might be we will all want to get as far away as possible!

Finally, a special mention for the aviation sector. While most of transport will resume, this sector now has serious immediate and long-term problems to deal with. And it is end-to-end. The aircraft manufacturers, the aircraft lessors and their backers, the airlines, the airports, the ground support, the customers and the tourism and visitor economy that depends on them all.

The crisis has brought on immediate existential issues for some and lingering problems for all.

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

We have a moment in time to try and lock in some of the more welcome changes in behaviour. But we also face the real risk of going backwards if we all revert to our private motor vehicles.

On welcome changes, there’s a chance to increase space for active transport (cycling and walking) and getting past the concept of peak hour through changes in our work habits.

I’d also like to see governments take this moment in time to look hard at last mile delivery. New collaborative distribution models may now have their moment through necessity, because last mile delivery is skyrocketing in growth.

On the risk of going backwards, we will really need to incentivise public transport all over again if suddenly none of us want to be share a bus or a train. If social distancing separation is deployed, then the journey experience may become unattractive if it involves long delays. We need real-time information in the hands of people about how crowded vehicles are, and we need big fare discounts.

Finally, I hope we don’t allow ourselves to become distracted from the need to remove emissions from transport. I hope we see a new-found determination to move to electric vehicles and phase out fossil fuels.

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

I think there will be lingering changes to travel patterns and behaviours, so the industry will need new models to forecast demand.

We will see an emphasis on resilience in how we decide our infrastructure priorities, as we seek to address the supply chain vulnerabilities the pandemic has exposed. And we will see greater use of smart infrastructure as part of that.

I think some big projects will be deferred, as the business cases for many such projects are underpinned by population growth that at the very least will be deferred.

Offsetting that is the need for stimulus. But to get the stimulus we want, the focus should be on smaller, fast-starting, no-regrets projects.

As flagged above, I expect even greater disruption and acceleration in supply chain and logistics reform, especially the last mile.

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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Author: Scott Fitzgerald


Scott looks after the iMOVE Australia and Transport of Tomorrow websites, including their content production, and social media accounts. He’s looking forward to seeing all the innovation that will be driven by iMOVE. Favourite car he’s ever owned? No question, a 1965 XP Ford Falcon Futura hardtop.

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