Are public transport services ready for Australians to return to work?

As the federal government announces plans to get Australians back to work by July, experts say public transport cannot cope with the usual morning commute.

Commuters at an unprecedentedly quiet Central Station in Sydney.

Commuters at an unprecedentedly quiet Central Station in Sydney. Source: AAP

As Australia's coronavirus restrictions continue to ease and people enjoy more freedom of movement outside their homes, more and more people will return to using public transport.

But how will Australia’s public transport networks cope with this increase in passengers and how can commuters prevent the spread of coronavirus? 

Is it possible to practise social distancing on public transport?

Yale Wong of the University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies said it would be possible to maintain social distancing as carriages fill up. 

“The whole point of public transport is to gather a lot of people onto a single vehicle, so it’s a bit of an oxymoron if you want to social distance on public transport,” he told SBS News.

“We’ve seen patronage plummet with up to 90 per cent drops in passengers on public transport, so social distancing has occurred organically, but it now needs to be formalised remains to be seen.”

A Sydney bus running without passengers on 1 April.
Source: AAP

As countries in Asia and Europe being to ease their own coronavirus restrictions, Mr Wong said many jurisdictions had implemented strict regulations to make trains and buses safer.

Most Chinese cities are conducting daily temperature checks of transport staff, giving employees personal protective equipment and making masks compulsory for all passengers. 

Some Chinese cities have also adopted a booking system to help stagger passenger movements to keep crowding to a minimum. 

In other parts of the world, standing on public transport has been banned, passenger numbers have been restricted and physical obstructions have been placed on seats to stop people from sitting too close together.

“One thing I think ought to be considered are measures we can put in place to reduce the need to physically distance, like making masks compulsory on public transport,” Mr Wong said.

“I know there is commentary that they’re not 100 per cent effective, but if everyone is wearing a mask, it will reduce the amount of particles in the air which will make it safer for people to be closer to each other.” 

Should people feel safe getting back on public transport?

Mr Wong said Australia could only afford to have one answer to this question. 

“Public transport has got to be safe. It’s not really a question of it, we have just got to make it safe,” he said. 

“Most public transport in this country is run by private operators, and they are very good at following directives and complying with what the authorities are requiring them to do, but right now they aren’t getting very many clear directives from those authorities.” 

A Melbourne City Council worker cleans a tram station as part of an increased coronavirus cleaning regimen.
Source: AAP

Public transport services have already ramped up cleaning and sanitisation efforts on buses, trains and trams, with these measures expected to continue. 

While it will be up to each state and territory to decide whether to implement defined social distancing measures on public transport, Mr Wong said the workplaces to which people are travelling also had a role to play.

Chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy has previously suggested employers could stagger staff starting times to avoid crowding in both the workplace and on public transport.

“This would also save a lot of money, because peak periods are very expansive. You need the drivers and resources to service those peaks, so if you can spread the demand out then you save money and make it safer as well,” Mr Wong said.

“There’s a lot of potential, but I worry that because we’ve been so lucky in Australia, there won’t be enough of an impetus for change.”

How will this impact our public transport networks over the coming years? 

The coronavirus restrictions have reduced Australian public transport usage to a fraction of what it was, and it most likely will not bounce back quickly.

With the pandemic bringing personal hygiene to the forefront of many Australians’ minds, Mr Wong said there would likely be a significant drop-off among choice-riders who have access to alternatives like cars. 

“We will probably see people being less comfortable to use public transport and choosing to drive instead like we saw in China for many years following SARS,” he said.

A deserted entrance to Wynyard Station in Sydney.
Source: AAP

“There are things we could do to give passengers a greater sense of confidence, like displaying a board saying when the carriage was last cleaned as we see in some Asian countries.” 

Despite these challenges, Mr Wong said the pandemic could also provide a golden opportunity to future-proof Australian transport networks. 

“Pandemics are going to happen in the future, and in Sydney alone there are 13 contracts going out for re-tender over the next two years, so this could be an opportunity to make our networks more agile,” he said. 

“At the end of the day, it’s about how much we are willing to change.” 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

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Published 8 May 2020 at 6:05pm
By Claudia Farhart