The Fence

Ryan Falconer on COVID-19 and transport

Ryan Falconer

Ryan Falconer is the Lead Transport Advisor at Auckland Council, and formerly led formerly Arup’s Integrated Planning business in Canada, and the Cities business in Western Australia. In addition to New Zealand, Canada and Australia, Ryan also has work experience in China and the USA.

His views below are his own personal observations, and are not offered, or to be construed as so, in accordance with his current role.

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

The COVID-19 approach adopted in New Zealand was go hard, go early. In March, restrictions started ramping up on travel to New Zealand and congregations within the country. At midnight on March 26, a full lockdown commenced lasting until April 28. Since then, restrictions have been relaxed in stages and the country is presently (June 15) at Alert Level 1. Having walked yesterday through downtown Auckland, it felt like a normal Sunday.

For New Zealanders lockdown was sharp but relatively short. Still, it was unprecedented, being a curtailment of personal freedom of movement unlike anything experienced previously in our Western democracy. The eight-or-so light vehicles per ten people in New Zealand stayed largely in garages and parking spaces. It was excellent to see improvements in air quality and reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In Auckland, the typical, near-daily media reports on congestion became reports about eerie, deserted motorways.

Restrictions due to COVID-19 affected all travel purposes. Commutes were limited to the comings and goings of essential workers. In Auckland, essential workers were about 21 per cent of all workers. Shopping trips were limited to essential destinations such as supermarkets and then only under tight social-distancing protocols. Local recreation was encouraged and positively, lots of people appeared to rediscover their connection with the outdoors by hopping on a bike or walking outside. Personally, I’d never seen so many people out-and-about on foot, riding their bikes and scooters.

In Auckland, public transport services ran to a weekend (reduced) timetable and at a fraction of normal capacity in observance of social-distancing protocols. Services were fare-free to support essential movements. Actual ridership ebbed to a few percentage points of ‘normal’.

Of course, travel patterns changed again as the country has come out of lockdown (more below). We can celebrate the benefits of walking and riding, reduced air pollution and GHG, the virtues of remote working (for some) and more ‘family time’ during lockdown. But the conditions precipitating these outcomes were extraordinary and we’re still trying to work out the price to be paid.

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

I’ve spent nights awake worrying about climate change and the future I am helping shape for my two kids and future generations. According to NASA and NOAA, 2019 was the second-hottest year on record and we may be on course in 2020 to hit a new extreme.

Science paints a grim picture for our planet. Scholars and journalists have interpreted the science and provided digestible, if bleak commentary – none more visceral than David Wallace-Wells’ The Unhabitable Earth – on things both already manifest as consequences of anthropogenic emissions, and what we might reasonably anticipate unless we make wholesale, rapid changes to our industrial and consumptive practices. Some of the dire predictions are probably unavoidable given the trajectory we are on and the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2.

In the Auckland region, the transport sector is front-and-centre of any discourse regarding anthropogenic emissions. In 2016, the on-road part of the transport sector generated about 38% of total GHG emissions in Auckland. In contrast, agricultural emissions formed the largest share of the national GHG emissions profile. But, as Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and over a third of the national population is located north of the Bombay Hills, a New Zealand climate strategy is also an Auckland Region transport strategy.

In June 2019, Auckland Council declared a climate emergency. Then, later in 2019, Auckland’s Climate Action Framework was publicly advertised.

Later in 2019, Parliament passed the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act. On February 1, 2021 the New Zealand Climate Change Commission will recommend to the Minster for Climate Change the first three tranches of GHG emissions budgets (i.e. through to 2035), in accordance with the Act.

In March 2020, Auckland Council’s Environment and Climate Change Committee resolved two core drivers for the region’s climate change response: Taking action to comply with a +1.5-degree Celsius emissions pathway and preparing for the consequences of a +3.5-degree warmer world. For on-road transport, this requires significant cuts to emissions within the next decade and much more work to improve the resilience of our system.

The climate challenge is not Aoraki, it’s Sagarmatha – it’s global, not local. Radical change is needed to make substantial steps along a climate risk reduction pathway and this is recognised in a growing number of policy and transport policy and strategy documents for Auckland and New Zealand

So, does the recovery from COVID-19 present the chance to accelerate action dealing with imperatives such as climate change? Can virtuous trends be anticipated to continue – increased rates of walking and cycling, motorised trips avoided through remote working, decreased GHG emissions and air pollution among them – as life starts to take on some semblance of normality?

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

Fortunately, New Zealand is a world-leader with lauded leadership now that the country has come out of domestic lockdown (hopefully for the long-run). I hope we get the timing right regarding the cautious relaxation of border restrictions and avoid re-emergence of virus clusters and community risks.

But, I worry that in our effort to rebound from the shock of COVID-19 we de-emphasise the importance of action addressing profound threats like climate change. I’m also concerned that we lose the momentum we had pre-COVID-19.

Briefly, prior to COVID-19, public transport ridership in Auckland had been growing (since about 2010), at an average rate of about 5.5 per cent per annum. Auckland has lagged cities elsewhere in Australasia in terms of rates of public transport use. But, from the late 2000s, strong growth in ridership has reflected a renaissance for investment in infrastructure and services including an overhaul of the public transport planning and contracting process, major capital investments, modernisation and network reorganisation.

In 2016, the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), was established reflecting unprecedented agreement between local and central government regarding the future growth and corresponding investment in transport infrastructure and services required for Auckland. The 2018 ATAP update added emphasis on public transport, walking and cycling. In 2020, climate change is a strategic priority in the Government’s draft Policy Statement on Land Transport.

Shifting people from private vehicles to lower carbon modes is an essential part of a climate-focused transport strategy. But much more is needed to avoid kilometres driven and lower GHG emitted from motorised travel. Transport sector emissions remain high and new travel demands are being generated by a growing population (with effects on growth because of COVID-19 remaining to be seen).

The New Zealand Government has spent many billions in response to the shock of COVID-19, dealing with the ‘here and now’ of the crisis. Meanwhile, Auckland Council is consulting now on an Emergency Budget and to offset reduced funding, the budget proposal features reductions to expenditure including transport investment programmes. The fiscal effects of COVID-19 are likely to be felt for years and have disproportionate impacts across the economy and community. Simultaneously, Auckland faces a water crisis that will neither be resolved quickly nor easily.

People emerged from lockdown having had a range of experiences. I found digital tools to be okay during lockdown (my vidcon software had a lot of stability issues) but mainly, I was grateful for employment. Around 30 per cent of working Aucklanders could work remotely. The remaining 70 per cent of the workforce was comprised of essential workers; a large minority, many in services and trades, had reduced or no ability to work. Ongoing remote work will suit some, but not the majority. Moreover, some people might now be commuting less but travelling more for other purposes – a substitution effect that is not yet well understood.

As restrictions eased post-lockdown, people once again became mobile and re-engaged in many daily activities. Cars that were sitting in garages and parking spots became available once more for commutes and other purposes. The public, as can be expected, has been encouraged to get back out-and-about to stimulate the economy.

A snap-back has been observed in Auckland and other cities in New Zealand in both traffic volumes and public transport ridership. But behaviour has shifted and some people perceive risks with using public transport. Private vehicle travel might seem to offer a hygiene bubble. It’s unclear how long these perceptions and the behaviours they lead to, might endure and what it all means for emissions.

Also, now that the unusual conditions of lockdown are gone, how will walking and cycling fare? Perhaps this depends on the extent to which pop-up and tactical street treatments are retained and added to (see minute 37 of this C40 presentation), so the new normal is a friendlier one for the pedestrian, cyclist and other micro-mobility users.

I remain hopeful about our future, but I feel like that mountain has got a bit steeper. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock and for now, the game-plan is to facilitate an economic rebound and mitigate the risks of re-emergence. Yet, there are other types of shock to avoid, so I hope momentum can be regained quickly and the climate change challenge is tackled head-on despite the exceedingly tough times. This requires us to be creative, broad and forward-thinking in our policies and actions.

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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