Sydney will need three square kilometres of car parking if a third of commuters who habitually use public transport start driving to work
The government announced strict new social distancing measures on Monday for the public transport network. It is limiting buses to 12 people and train carriages to 32, forcing hundreds of thousands of Sydneysiders to reconsider how and if they will return to work as coronavirus restrictions lift.
Bracing for an uptake in driving, the NSW government will provide additional parking at Moore Park from Monday, while consideration is also being given to making Wentworth Park available to motorists.
Dr Elliot Fishman, the director of the Institute for Sensible Transport, which undertook the research, said never before in Australia’s history had there been a requirement for peak hour public transport to shed seven out of every eight passengers.
He said it was “difficult to overstate the scale of the challenge” to achieve safe public transport in coming months.
Providing parking for 200,000 former public transport commuters would take up more space than Sydney’s entire CBD, said Stephen Hodge, the director of national advocacy with We Ride Australia, a cycling lobby group, which commissioned the institute’s research.
Mr Hodge said one car bay equals 15 square metres and 200,000 additional cars driving into central Sydney would require three-square kilometres of car parking.
To provide some idea of the “quantum of changes” required to keep Australians safe, research authors Liam Davies, a senior transport analyst, and Dr Fishman combined a range of census and transport data to look at what needed to be done.
Before the pandemic, about 600,000 people (about 400,000 workers and 200,000 people travelling to shops and schools) used public transport in peak hours.
The new modelling suggests that around 94,000 commuters can safely be accommodated on public transport in peak hours to maintain safe distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. This figure took into account the number of people who couldn’t work from home (such as service or hospitality workers) and those who lived more than 10 kilometres away and couldn’t cycle or walk to work.
Mr Davies said it was about “protecting public transport for those people who have no other options.”
To enable safe distancing, the institute estimated that another 206,462 people – mostly office workers and managers – would need to work from home, very likely continuing what they had been practising in lockdown.
An additional 213,801 would have to avoid taking public transport or stagger trips outside peak hours, and about 83,000 would need to cycle to work to maintain a safe distance.
Without these changes, as many as 200,000 people may decide to drive to work.
“You either have your cities full of cars to an unstainable degree, or you have full public transport, ensuring a really rapid transmission. Neither are scenarios we want,” Mr Davies said.
University of Sydney transport expert Geoffrey Clifton said the massive challenge of returning people to work had caught people “off guard” because the lockdown had ended faster than predicted.
“You can’t shift everyone who was taking public transport. [They] can’t fit any more on the roads. Unless people stay home it’s not going to work,” said Dr Clifton.
“They can’t magic up extra capacity.”
To provide safe commuting, the institute has called for public transport to operate on a peak hour timetable throughout the day with incentives for travelling off-peak. It also wants greater investment in cycling lanes.
Wilson Parking chief executive Stephan Wuffli said the company expected motorists to begin returning to the CBD in coming weeks.
“There has been a little bit of return this week, but whether it’s enough to call it a trend … we are hoping to see a return,” he said.
The company has been running at only 20 to 30 per cent capacity since mid-March across all Australian cities. Wilson is now offering $15 all-day parking on 13,000 parking bays.
A Transport for NSW spokeswoman said the government would keep public sector employees working remotely for “as long as possible”.
Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.