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Road traffic returns to pre-COVID levels as commuters shun public transport

The least number of trips on public transport in 2020 occurred in April, with 12.1 million journeys – compared to 60.2 million public transport trips prior to the statewide lockdown in February.

Professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney David Levinson said the nature of public transport usage meant it was affected by lockdown more than other modes.

Commuters are using their cars more since the outbreak.

Commuters are using their cars more since the outbreak. Credit: Steven Siewert

“There is a lot less travel to work for office workers – especially CBD-based office workers – which hits trains pretty hard, since the rail network radiates from the Sydney CBD,” he said.

In comparison, traffic is 4 per cent lower than a year ago, with an average of 107 million vehicles on the roads each day compared to 112 million, a Transport for NSW spokeswoman said.

Road traffic in Greater Sydney fell about 55 per cent on pre-COVID levels during the height of pandemic restrictions in April and May.

“While we’ve seen an increase in people choosing to drive during the pandemic we have no concerns over congestion or gridlock at this stage,” she said.

However, road congestion has been predicted to worsen with workers shunning public transport to commute to their offices by car. Infrastructure Victoria found the number of daily car trips could increase by 15 per cent on pre-COVID levels.

Patronage on ferries has plummeted by two-thirds in the past 12 months, according to Opal data.

Patronage on ferries has plummeted by two-thirds in the past 12 months, according to Opal data.Credit:Sam Mooy

An online poll conducted by insurance company Allianz found almost half of motorists believed there will be more people driving “to avoid public transport and the threat of germs”.

The lack of tourists and students had also reduced travel compared to previous years, Professor Levinson said. “I don’t think congestion will go all the way back to normal as restrictions ease, the rise in working from home and deliveries in lieu of shopping and eating out will be at least somewhat irreversible.”

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Traffic data from TomTom found Sydney’s congestion levels for the morning and evening peak in 2020 were at least 10 per cent lower than 2019, while mobility data from Apple showed foot traffic and public transport use in Sydney was significantly lower than 12 months ago.

Foot traffic in Sydney’s CBD remains less than half of pre-COVID levels, but there has been an increase in cyclists.

Data from the City of Sydney found the number of bicycle riders on cycleways last year remained almost the same as pre-pandemic levels, but had increased by 15 per cent over summer.

“While we’ve seen a reduction in public transport and walking activity in the CBD there has been an increase in people riding bikes,” a council spokeswoman said.

Professor Levinson said the COVID-19 crisis would have long-term effects on peak-hour traffic as well as public transport usage.

He also said road and rail projects not already under construction should be reconsidered: “The extent to which travel demand changes (like working from home) are permanent should change where the most important investments are.”

Professor Levinson said a shift towards working from home would encourage more people to live further from the inner-city “and probably favour the auto over public transport, as autos provide greater flexibility, and can reach places that frequent public transport cannot”.

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