New normal? Sydney and Melbourne public transport use still at 80% of pre-Covid levels | Transport
Average weekday public transport trips in Sydney and Melbourne are still down around 20% from pre-Covid levels, and experts say this level of use may become the “new normal”. But the data shows that even as total numbers are down, there are differing patterns across modes of transport, regions and times of day.
“The peaks have been dropping, and the off-peaks have been increasing” says Prof David Hensher from the University of Sydney.
“Sydney [CBD] is pretty much at 80% recovery in terms of number of people at any one time working in offices. And we don’t think it’ll ever get any higher. Which raises pretty important questions about what to do with that excess capacity.”
This chart shows total trips across the NSW Opal card network remain significantly lower than before the pandemic.
Data from Victoria Transport shows similar figures. A Department of Transport spokesperson said more people used public transport last week than at any time since March 2020, but weekday public transport patronage in Victoria is still about 80-85% of pre-Covid levels.
Monday and Friday are the most common work-from-home days in both states, with Tuesdays and Thursdays the busiest days on public transport.
But the data suggests this trend predates the pandemic. Monday accounted for about 19.6% of weekday trips across the Opal network in February 2019, compared with 19% this year.
The Victorian data shows recovery from pre-Covid public transport patronage has been weaker on Mondays and Fridays than most other days.
A Transport for NSW spokesperson said the pattern of lower use on Mondays and Fridays was likely to continue but, in a sign of shifting patterns, there has been an increase in trips into the Sydney CBD on Friday afternoons.
“About 39% of the average daily journeys arriving into Sydney CBD on a Friday are after 3pm, compared with 31% on other weekdays,” the spokesperson said.
In March 2020, Hensher and his colleagues began including a question about working from home in their long-running Transport Opinion Survey. The latest one, released in September, shows Sydneysiders working on average about 1.4 days a week from home.
That number is down from a high of 3.49 days in March 2020, but Hensher says preliminary data from the next survey suggests it is reaching a “stable equilibrium”.
“What we found in September last year is pretty much exactly what we’re finding now”, Hensher says. “Two days a week [working from home], especially for people working in certain occupations, and it could be slightly higher in the CBD, is a pretty good estimate.” The rate of working from home in Sydney is also slightly higher than the national average.
More people working from home helps to explain the huge reduction in people travelling during peak hours. Far fewer people are travelling to the Sydney CBD between 5am and 10am, according to the Opal data, even as the rest of the day is almost exactly (on average) as it was in January and February 2020.
Guardian Australia looked at vehicle counts on major roads around metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne and found similar results. The number of vehicles on the roads is much closer to pre-Covid levels than public transport, but there has been a reduction in morning peak-hour traffic.
Hensher attributes much of this to increased flexibility at work. “A lot of what’s been happening is changing the time of day at which you do things, [much of it] because of the change of employers’ attitudes towards flexibility in working. People are finding it more convenient … to begin earlier or begin later, and finish early or finish later.”
The data also shows that public transport patronage across Sydney is not uniformly down. While the CBD hovers around 80% of January 2020 levels and North Sydney even lower, Macquarie Park is above 90%.
Some of this variance probably reflects the ability to work from home. Hensher and his colleagues have modelled the probability that people can work from home by region throughout the pandemic and found huge discrepancies. Some of the highest levels in Sydney are closer to the CBD.
Guardian Australia previously found similar patterns using census data.
“There is an equity issue,” Hensher says. “[It] is pretty unfair, you know, if people are forced to commute because they have jobs where they can’t work from home – what do we do about it? That’s a tricky question. And to be honest, I don’t have an answer.”
But Hensher notes that workplace changes since the pandemic have dramatically improved conditions for people who are using public transport.
“People aren’t wasting time in their very stressful commute to the same extent. And even if you’re using public transport, you’ve got more chance of getting a seat and less crowding. And all these things are adding to a work-life balance that’s less stressful.”