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COVID-19’s temporary measures a long-term solution to road congestion

This represents significant reductions in commuting trips and also those for social and recreational activities: all-important for our social and mental health.

In dealing with this sizeable impact to the nature of work and social connectedness, our research indicates strong levels of community agreement that COVID-19 represented a threat requiring drastic action. It also reveals high levels of trust in governments and organisations regarding the appropriateness of the response.

However, there are challenges yet to be faced as restrictions ease. The research also shows a new-found aversion to public transport: given the increased attractiveness of the car, as bio-security becomes an attribute in mode choice, if we are not careful we can expect to see congestion at levels even worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

One unintended consequence of COVID-19 is many now see working from home as a viable option, including and especially employers. While we entered working from home (WFH) in a haphazard manner certainly there are productivity, equity and work-life balance gains inherent in the arrangement. Given our generally positive experiences that might just be enough to get many to rethink traditional work arrangements.

WFH, at least in the short term, will be important as restrictions are eased, particularly because we are likely to see a spike in congestion driven by capacity constraints on public transport and the concern that the mode presents.

Public policy should also support the uptake in healthy ‘active’ transport such as walking and cycling, bringing multiple benefits of easing road congestion, improving mental and physical health and promoting stronger communities.

Seizing this crisis momentum, we also want to champion another long-held transport objective: peak-spreading – staggering commuting hours so we have less dramatic peaks.

Human beings are pretty “sticky” creatures in that we are habitual, and many behaviours are quite ingrained. As restrictions ease and memories dim, people way well return to those default behaviours. If we can though, we should look at this current forced intervention and imagine how it can improve the future.

It only takes a little bit of pressure to be removed from the peak, for the transport network to operate significantly more efficiently. Some amount of increased working from home should continue to be embraced, understanding that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to work this way, and that inequalities in WFH continue to exist.

Overall the careful mix of legislated change and change which has been given over to the Australian public to own, has been successful thus far in reducing rates of infection. We have trusted the actions of our governments, taken ownership of the problem, and worked together on the solution. But that has been the easy bit.

As shops open up, social gatherings allowed, as we return to work, travel will change. Once more governments and organisations should be aware of other side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that might also interrupt work, travel and activities that have been shown to be important to our wellbeing.

As we leave the current state of consensus over action, to a potentially more difficult and fractious period of easing restrictions, there will likely be a competition of opinions over appropriate action. We need to continue to support each other, and maintain the resilience we have shown thus far, that has allowed to come this far together.

The report containing the preliminary findings can be found on the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies.

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