Sydney’s sensible steps to ease out of the great coronavirus lockdown
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 2020
It was a nervous Premier on Monday who announced occupancy limits on public transport, pop-up car parking and temporary cycleways to help Sydney ease out of the great coronavirus lockdown.
Even though some people think we have the virus licked and could get back to normal faster, the Premier is right to be nervous. Travelling on public transport is risky at present, and her plan is a sensible attempt to deal with those risks head-on.
There’s plenty we don’t know about the virus and how it spreads, but we do know that close and prolonged contact with other people puts you at risk of contracting COVID-19 – and close and prolonged contact is just what public transport often provides. A study in The Lancet in April investigated the close contacts of a large group of people infected with COVID-19 in Shenzhen, including those who passed through airports and train stations, found that travelling with someone is almost as risky as living with them. Other studies agree.
The government’s plan limits how many people can be on buses and trains. Only 12 people will be allowed on a bus and 32 in a train carriage, and people may be prevented from boarding trains and buses that already have their quota of passengers aboard.
That means more of us will drive kids to school and ourselves to work. In response, the government is offering free parking at Moore Park with a shuttle bus or light rail connection into the city. It’s also encouraging us to get on our bikes, with 6 kilometres of temporary cycleways.
Many cities have rushed to build permanent ones. In Seattle, 32 kilometres of streets have been closed to most cars to allow more space to walk and cycle. In Paris, 50 kilometres of roadway will be designated for bikes after the lockdown ends. In Milan, 35 kilometres of streets will feature expanded cycling and walking space by the time the city re-opens after lockdown.
The NSW government has put $15 million on the table for local councils to apply for grants of up to $100,000 for new cycleways and wider footpaths, and has expressed a desire to work with councils to do more.
It’s unfortunate to have to prepare for an increase in driving. Nobody wants to see city roads in gridlock while buses and trains roll by a quarter full or less, especially with so much having been invested in public transport upgrades in recent years.
But people won’t return to public transport until they feel safe, and until they can be assured that when they turn up at the station, they will be able to board the next train without having to worry too much about how many people are already aboard.
And don’t forget: many people have discovered during this lockdown that working from home is possible, even if that becomes only a day or two a week. Many more will find that start and finish times for work may be more flexible than they used to be. People adapt in many ways to changed circumstances, and we can’t foresee all of them from here.
The NSW government has moved swiftly to introduce some of the practical changes to transport that we need right now. These are unusual times, and these changes have been developed under pressure, but this quickly conceived plan is far better than persisting with grand infrastructure projects dreamt up in a pre-COVID world. These include projects such as the West Harbour Tunnel and the Sydney Metro West and should be reviewed now that population growth and travel patterns have been cast into doubt.
NSW has shown the way on public transport. The question now is which of the other states will follow the Premier’s lead?