The Fence

John Wall on COVID-19 and transport


John Wall is the Program Manager for Future Vehicles & Technology with Austroads. He has worked in road safety for over 20 years and established the Road Safety Technology Unit within Transport for NSW back in 2008. He also holds a Master of Public Health qualification and studied epidemiology at a post-graduate level, and provides a unique perspective on the pandemic for a transport practitioner.

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

As I sit in my home office overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the green hills of the Illawarra escarpment south of Sydney, I am instantly struck by the natural beauty of the place I call home. I have worked from home full time for almost ten weeks now. Prior to this I was commuting to Sydney twice a week and travelling to some other location in Australia or New Zealand every other week.

Occasionally a car will pass by on the street below but now I see more people than cars during daylight hours. They are out enjoying the last days of a warmer than expected autumn. Never before have I seen so many people walking their dogs past my window, the pandemic in all of its horror has been a positive thing for our animal companions. Their masters and mistresses are home most of the time now and whilst we humans are feeling isolated, our pets are probably feeling more connected than ever before.

Our businesses community is not faring as well as our animal companions. The majority of small businesses in our regional town have shut their doors and I wonder how many will be able to reopen after the pandemic. Our town is highly dependent on tourists and without them our businesses are dying.

We had only just started to recover from the devastating bushfires this summer when the pandemic hit, and people were ordered again not to travel to the south coast. A few businesses are trying to adapt, for example our little café up the road has teamed up with our local farmers’ market and is now selling locally-grown produce including beef, free range eggs, pumpkins, and watermelons. He is even producing his own ice cream popsicles from locally sourced milk. There is no doubt that the pandemic has started to get people to think about the value of supporting local industries and I hope this continues.

I think I am getting more work done at home than I was before the pandemic struck. I am not as tired as when I was commuting and travelling interstate for work. I miss the people I work with, probably more than I would have expected. Somehow the Teams or Zoom meetings are not the same as having a chat with someone at morning team or over lunch!

One positive to come out of the lockdown period we have faced is that the number of deaths on our roads in most jurisdictions is less than last year. In NSW for example we have seen around a 24% drop in the number of road related fatalities when compared to the same time last year. I would expect we have also seen a similar drop in the number of people injured. This is a positive for our communities and our public health systems.

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

The program I manage at Austroads is very focused on assisting transport agencies to leverage of future vehicles and technologies to improve the outcomes for the communities they serve. We want a safe, efficient and sustainable road transport system for Australia and New Zealand.

I think that one of the key things that we have learnt through this period of lockdown is that many of us travel unnecessarily for work. Do not misunderstand me I am very aware that some of us don’t have a choice, it is impossible for a plumber, builder, nurse or police officer to work remotely and still provide the level of service that is expected.

In early 1994, I was part of one of the original studies into teleworking run by the Roads and Traffic Authority of NSW. I was provided with an additional phone line, a fax machine, and a pager. The report on that project found that a small reduction in road demand can substantially reduce congestion delay and other social costs. It was estimated that if the acceptance rate for teleworking was 10% across all industries or if 50% of car commuters teleworked one day per week the cost of delays in Sydney would be reduced by up to $0.8 billion per year. In addition to this social cost savings relating to vehicle operating costs, crashes and air pollution would also be realised.

Post-pandemic I would like all of us to consider the true costs not just for our organisation but for our community at large associated with requiring our employees to travel every day to a central office.

Would it be possible to allow our staff to work from home or from a closer office one day a week after the lockdown has finished? Clearly the answer is yes, it is possible and we have shown it can be done.

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

I think we will see the numbers of people commuting to work each day decrease for at least the rest of this year. I envisage that businesses hit hard by the economic cost of the pandemic will re-evaluate the cost of maintaining expensive central office space in central business districts of our large cities.

It is possible that because of the pandemic the patronage of crowded mass public transport may be reduced in the short term as people strive to maintain social distancing until a vaccine becomes available for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This in turn may see an increase in the number of commuters opting to travel to work in their own vehicle leading to increased traffic congestion.

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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