The traffic response to COVID-19 in Victoria

The traffic response to COVID-19 in Victoria

At the time of writing, a state of emergency has been declared for the state of Victoria. We are currently observing what has been labelled “Stage 3” restriction on activities. The directions from the Government are to stay at home at all times except:

  1. to shop for food and other necessary goods and services 
  2. to access medical services or provide caregiving
  3. to attend work or education (where you can’t do those things remotely) or;
  4. for exercise.

As you might expect, these restrictions have reduced the demand for our transport systems. Pedestrian and public transport demands have plummeted alongside significant reductions in traffic volumes.

All data are presented relative to the first week of February 2020. Traffic data was obtained from SCATS. “COVID-19 Growth” has been sourced from data published by the Victorian Government and is the relative change in infections from one week to the next. For scale, the week for 16 March saw a rapid rise in confirmed cases compared to the previous week, increasing total cases 5-fold.

Melbourne vs Regional Victoria

I find it quite surprising how immediate the effect of reducing activity has had on the spread of the virus. If traffic volumes serve as an analogue to activity, it is apparent that as soon as a significant change in behaviour was achieved, the number of new cases began to decrease.

I didn’t know what to expect from the regional vs city comparison. On one hand, it seems intuitive that the regions have a higher dependency on road transport. However, I can think of a few competing factors that may be influencing both city and regional trips:

  • The lack of public transport in regional Victoria means that if the same proportion of people stopped travelling, the relative change in road traffic would be greater.
  • Travelers in the city may opt to drive as an additional social-distancing measure.
  • There is a higher proportion of white-collar workers and university students in the city than in the regions. These people are the most likely to be able to work from home.
  • The regions are productive. Per person, the number of kilograms exported out of the area would be many times that of Melbourne’s residents. Road transport makes up the vast majority of freight movements in Victoria.
  • Regional Victoria is host to many major tourist sites that are often only accessible by road. As domestic and international tourism stalls, traffic accessing these sites would also drop.

I suspect that the deciding factor is the office workers of Melbourne. However, wouldn’t that mean that weekend trips would be reduced more in regional Victoria than in the city?

As you can see above, the regions are still making more trips than the city. Is this a matter of the virus being less visible? Are people engaging in more risky behaviour outside of the city? Or is there another explanation? Please weigh in!

Good Behaviour

I’ve heard it repeated many times by news outlets, politicians and the pundits on social media: don’t take any unnecessary trips. But how can we measure that?

I would hazard a guess that the largest proportion of daily recreational trips occur on weekends. For the first week of February, daily weekend traffic was 19% lower than weekdays for that same week. This gap expanded as restrictions were introduced to a whopping 38%. To me, this is clear-cut: we are making fewer recreational trips.

Good work to everyone doing their part and staying inside over the weekend!

What Crowded CBD Footpaths?

Taking a look at the City of Melbourne pedestrian and parking data gives us insight into how the coronavirus is impacting the CBD. Immediately, the drop in pedestrian volumes jumps out. From the peak around the start of the university semester, pedestrian volumes have tumbled by around 77%.

I think this rapid decline of CBD pedestrian volumes points to why the Melbourne metro area has experienced a greater proportional reduction in road traffic than regional Victoria. Such a large drop in pedestrians volumes suggests a significant proportion of jobs can be performed remotely. Although employment is less dense in the regions, proportionally fewer jobs could be performed inside the home. Thus – in relative terms – there is greater opportunity to forgo transport trips in the city than in the regions.

At first, the parking statistics had me flummoxed. The number of movements in and out of monitored spaces took a sudden 20% hit back in February and immediately stabilised. After I had a peek at the data, only eleven of the 3,000 parking sensors had any data within the set. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only nine are reporting data from 17-Feb onwards. That explains that missing 20%.

Update: The City of Melbourne has contacted me and is refreshing the parking data now. I will update the post with the new results.

Final Thoughts

As we shelter indoors and wonder what Stage 4 restrictions could look like, desktop analyses like this will become a source of entertainment in the coming weeks. It appears that traffic volumes are a very good indicator of how well restrictions on movement are working. However, I am still at a loss as to why the regions are under-performing against the city in relative terms. Your thoughts are welcome!

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