BBefore the pandemic struck, Sara Blazey traveled the same three hours to work, three days a week, for the better part of 12 years. The 63-year-old family lawyer from the Blue Mountains works for the domestic violence legal advice hotline in Parramatta and he used to get up at 7 in the morning, drive seven minutes to Hazelbrook station and from there take a 7.17 train to Parramatta before traveling home for one and a half hours the same at night.
With a pandemic, all that will change. Services supporting domestic violence as used by Blazey stated “urgent“Service, which means they can continue to operate despite restrictions. To ensure they can do it safely, the organization does what the old commentators deem impossible and starts diverting its employees to work from home.
“There are some of us who are older in the office who say it all sounds too difficult, really,” Blazey said. “And then we are reluctant to work from home. My house is my home. I especially don’t want to do my work from there. “
When the country experienced collective technological improvement, millions of workers like Blazey withdrew from the office block and the entire city was emptied. That is a pattern that will be replicated throughout the world. The streets without cars and sidewalks that are free of people are so haunting that they include photos of the city New York, Paris and Sydney shared on social media.
In Australia, the scale of this change was captured in data obtained by the Grattan Institute. Anonymized geolocation data collected from people’s cellphones shows how crowds in the central business district along the east coast have thinned in half even before the Australian government announced the first phase of restrictions on social movements. In mid-April they were almost abandoned. Huddling in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane CBD dropped to one fifth or less, while crowding around suburban train stations dropped to 10th.
People like Blazey might get back three extra hours in their day but, when the community begins to reopen, the question now is whether hugs work from the house sticks. If it becomes permanent, it might drive radical changes in the way governments think about how we drive, fly, travel and ride in a post-pandemic world.
Plane, train and car
Transportation has become the center of attention. In mid-April Labor spokesman Catherine King called for the construction of a high-speed train line to be built between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne as a buffer against the recession. The king collected the idea – which has existed since the 1980s – as a “game modifier” for the region along its route.
“High-speed trains have the potential to revolutionize interstate travel, allowing inter-capital travel in just three hours,” King said.
As an idea, that thought is about the past and the future. A century ago, when the economy was driven by transportation, everything depended on the ability to move people. Since then, planes, trains and cars have played an enormous role in the imagination, especially for policymakers looking for “shovel-ready” projects.
Marion Terrill of the Grattan Institute said this romance proved to be expensive today. After studying the proposal for high-speed trains, he said that if the country locked itself in such a project, it would be 22 years before the first leg was finished and it would be 39 years – if not longer – before the country saw any reduction in carbon emissions.
“The thing about fast trains is that it plays for our dreams,” Terrill said. “We love fast trains. That is something that people respond emotionally to. Everything for everyone: it will create jobs, relieve city pressure, help the region, or function as a stimulus. “
“When we see it, most of the benefits go to business travelers between Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. “
Terrill said this applies not only to future projects, but extends to existing ones which must now be reviewed. Without a vaccine that is expected for at least 18 months – if ever – there is a possibility that social distance regulations can remain even when restrictions on social movements are lifted. With lower capacity and lower population expected, it is no longer possible to justify the many existing projects, including the $ 18.6 billion WestConnex subway and the second airport to Sydney.
These decisions can raise questions about the future of mass transit itself, especially among governments who think hard about their debt problems. Faced with renewed mistrust of public space and the requirements of social distance, the public transportation system must now be installed to reduce the surface and the capacity that can be touched. Doing so carries outside financial costs.
The risk, said Prof. Kim Dovey, chair of architecture and urban design at Melbourne University, is that a reduction in capacity will make public transportation unusable when what is needed is massive expansion.
“This virus is really an attack on cities, in many ways,” Dovey said. “One of the biggest effects is stopping cities from functioning effectively. This stops people from gathering and interacting. In my opinion, this is what makes the city function.
“If people want to stay two meters from each other into the future, it will kill the city.”
Thinking of it this way, Covid-19 is a sociological equivalent of a distributed denial of service attack – where a bunch of computers repeatedly try to access the same system at once, eventually burdening with requests. If at the beginning of the pandemic the main concern was the ability of the health system to cope, now what needs to be worried is that secondary systems such as transportation will weaken.
The consequences are huge. If the density and walking ability combine to make the city a lively place to live, public transportation is a possible muscle. Cars may have dominated cities over the past century, but in the last decade the protection of public transport has slowly grown once again. If this trend is broken, said Dovey, the results will be “tragic”.
“Reducing public transportation by 30% will kill the city,” he said. “We really have to go the other way.”
This concern extends beyond trains, trams and buses to the “microscale” of the city and efforts to green them. The more space available for cars, the less there are footpaths. Elevators in tall buildings that are built to handle eight to 10 people become inoperable when limited to only one or two.
“Today many people will avoid public transportation for a while, which means they will get in their cars,” Dovey said. “And that will generate demand for more roads, as usual.
“People still believe that building roads can reduce congestion but that is not true. All it does is stimulate demand for cars. This will make big steps backwards for cities that have lasted a long time, especially in efforts to reclaim space for use from cars. “
Fork on the road
In January 2019 the Australian car fleet numbered 19.5 million, according to to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. With millions now not working or working from home, many of these vehicles remain unused. What happens next depends on what happens when restrictions are relaxed and people return to work – mainly because global oil prices remain low.
The reason is quite simple. When the entire national economy was put on ice at the start of a pandemic, world oil producers continued to pump even when demand fell off a cliff. When they run out of storage, the mismatch between supply and demand grows so chronic oil producer in Russia find it easier to burn off their excesses, marking a disaster for the fight against climate change.
“The oil field is not like a wine bottle, where you can put in a cork and return it later,” Jeff Colgan said. “Closing oil fields can damage it, which reduces or even eliminates future field production.”
Colgan is an associate professor of political science Richard Holbrooke at Brown University and an expert in the global oil industry, who said low fuel prices will last for some time.
“Nothing lasts forever in the oil business but low oil prices might be here to last for at least the rest of the year and maybe much longer,” he said. “Even when consumer demand rises after the locking is over, there is a lot of stockpiling that will keep prices from rising too fast.”
Against this global background, Australia – is a proud one highest sulfur content fuel in the OECD and increasing road transport emissions – finding itself stuck between two competing futures.
On the one hand, low and sustainable oil prices will make gasoline cars cheaper to run, thwarting any efforts to encourage the use of electric vehicles as part of the transition to a carbonless economy.
An alternative scenario is exemplified by China. When Australia’s biggest trading partner lifted limits and moved to reopen its plant earlier this month, its people stay at home. If this pattern is repeated throughout the world, the cumulative decrease in demand will destabilize the oil-producing economy, while making it more difficult to deconstruct domestic transportation.
Some like John Quiggin are more inclined to this second scenario. While he acknowledged the incentives created in the post-pandemic world could lead to less public transport and more cars on the road, University of Queensland economists said “most of the troops are moving in the opposite direction”. If historically the opposition to working from home by businesses is a meta-conversation about their ability to trust their workforce, the focus can shift to basic costs because the regulation of fixed social distance and work office capacity goes down.
“The office will be under pressure to maintain a lot of space and a very cheap way to do that is to give people a choice whether they enter or not,” Quiggin said. “Meanwhile, electric vehicles continue to increase all the time. Their retrieval comes with anything that stops the growth of the fleet of cars that gives EV opportunities. “
What applies to the average employee will also apply to meeting rooms. Even though Australia avoids the worst viruses, other countries don’t. Many will remain locked for some time, forcing each country or region to become more independent. Transportation can continue to move across the border into the future but people will not do it. Anyone who wants to travel on business faces the prospect of quarantine of five to 14 days every time the border is crossed. In the end, it will be easier – and cheaper – to deal with video conferencing.
The same can be said for Australia’s tourism, education and aviation sectors. Education-related travel services and personal travel services are each ranked Australia fourth and fifth largest exports in 2018-19. After the pandemic, tour operators, universities and airlines will no longer be able to rely on the flow of tourists and international students – a fact that has forced restructuring.
Since Quiggin became one of the first to call public time on the airline at the end of March, Virgin Australia has fall into administration. From the beginning the government described Qantas and Virgin as “too important to fail”, but it allowed companies that were weaker than the two companies to collapse. What happens next, Quiggin said, must be watched closely.
“What happens to airlines will be a signal for what they are planning for other countries,” Quiggin said. “There are three possibilities. One is [Virgin] will rise again the way the government hopes. One is that it will not rise again and they will let it fall. The third is that they must intervene or maybe they will be forced to do things that they do not currently want. “
This is what underlines the importance of the moment. In determining the little things about how Australians go around, the country’s political leadership finds itself with great power to reshape society. If they reach the past to direct the future, the result can be missed opportunities, or grim new realities. However, some projects are suitable for now. Improve national broadband networks – $ 36bn international shame – Can eliminate daily trips for millions while providing stimulus.
The most radical is perhaps even simpler.
“One of the advantages is that currently the streets are empty of cars and we will need more pedestrian space if we are to continue social distance,” Dovey said. “We should be out there changing roads into paths.
“All you need is a little authority and paint on the road. We can do many good things for cities if we have the courage and ideas. “
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