How the COVID-19 pandemic could change the way engineers plan and design transport infrastructure
By Derrick Hitchins, National Sector Leader, Traffic and Transport Planning, SMEC
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented global challenge, impacting profoundly on health and wellbeing, daily life and the economy around the world.
The most obvious and immediate impact on traffic and transport has been a significant reduction in patronage for public transport and an increase in the need for connected and safe supply chains.
What role might we, as engineers and designers, play in shaping future traffic and transport infrastructure to increase users' connectivity while ensuring our safety during crises like infectious diseases?
While the immediate response must be to focus on people and healthcare services, it stands to reason that later on, when the dust begins to settle, infrastructure adjustments will be high on the agenda. The Australian Institute of Traffic Planners and Managers (AITPM), of which I am a member, is currently discussing traffic and transport infrastructure and its resilience to these kinds of shocks. We are not alone in discussing these issues which are shared by many similar organisations around the world.
Securing our supply chains
The Australian road transport industry is already playing an essential part in supporting our economy during the COVID-19 crisis. As the impact migrates through the sector, the challenge of maintaining a fully functional trucking fleet becomes even more critical in reducing the effects of the crisis on Australians and Australian businesses.
Many states have closed their borders, and the only people who can cross are those related to emergency services or primary logistics services delivering critical supplies. This has led to an even greater impact on the wider economy which continues to rely on many other non-critical supplies to counteract the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and keep people’s jobs.
At a personal level, COVID-19 has changed the life of our truck drivers too. As shops, roadside cafes and diners shut, the opportunities for truck drivers to stop and refresh have been reduced. Drivers’ freedom to access food, services and hospitality venues has been severely restricted, along with their movement in regional towns.
We immediately think of health care professionals, teachers and police as front-line staff, but what about those keeping essential state-wide and interstate supply chains open, delivering groceries, industrial equipment and spare parts, medical supplies and produce to quarantined communities? While short-term measures such as social distancing are important, we need to take a more sustainable and long-term view for maintaining supply chains and protecting the health of drivers and logistics workers.
Strategically though, engineers must be prepared to take even greater steps now towards securing our future economic prosperity. This means maximising the potential benefits of a more automated trucking fleet and harnessing the efficiencies of a fully automated end-to end digitised supply chain industry. Autonomous vehicle manufacturing needs to be scaled up a notch and our road controlling authorities need to respond with a much clearer policy for adapting our roads to cater for these emerging technologies and automated trends.
Designing less crowded train stations and carriages
One hot topic already broached in the public transport industry is the design of train carriages and stations themselves. Those who work in transport design will know we plan for trains to be overcrowded during peak times. Trains and railways are costly infrastructure, and this approach optimises the use of the fleet. But right now, no one wants to be on crowded public transport.
In the future, we may need to review this previously acceptable 'design-for-overcrowding' approach. Additional responses could include more generous seating arrangements, wider platforms waiting areas, extended train platforms for longer trains and more fixed seating which removes the need for over-crowding in aisles and door access areas. All of our major cities now use contactless ticketing technology which is good, but should this concept be extended to include separate carriages for the elderly or infirmed, or even parenting/children carriages to encourage off peak hour travel at a reduced or more subsidised price?
Obviously, such measures will need to be balanced against the ongoing costs of operation and considerations such as passenger capacity and fleet utilisation rates. But what it does raise is the possibility of re-visiting the way in which the current performance targets for our public transport operators are set, and subsequently measured, rather than just profitability to minimise cost. COVID-19 has definitely confirmed the direct relationship between the economy and the general health of the nation when things go wrong.
Emerging technology will help alleviate pressure
No one can predict the timeframe of this pandemic or what the entirety of its impacts may be. One lasting outcome might be a clear preference for the use of personalised modes of travel for health reasons rather than for the convenience and lessor cost of public transport travel. We, therefore, have to start thinking outside the box to ensure we are designing future-proofed infrastructure so that we can all comfortably, and safely, navigate from point a to point b.
Perhaps it is the emerging technological trends, such as MaaS and Automated Fleet vehicles, that will be our greatest asset. In the past, I have predicted that 80% saturation of these services would take up to 30 years to eventuate, but in light of our new world order, these resources and the associated infrastructure required to ensure that they work may be need to fast tracked even more in order to manage risks and protect our communities against an even less known future.