What can we learn about transport from the disruption caused by the Coronavirus?
The answer to that question, in most part, depends on what we will measure.
There will be an abundance of opinions as to what the effects of the epidemic will be, especially in the short-term, but what about in the long term with changes that will occur because people were forced into different decisions and patterns.
What will be the transport legacies and how should we react to them? We will only get the full picture if we collect data and efficiently analyse it. We cannot guarantee we will collect all the right data but we need to think carefully, now, so we are well placed to see immediate and long term changes in travel patterns.
“In Australia, when it comes to epidemic disease, we have a collective amnesia. The terrifying epidemics that have swept through Australia in the past – diseases such as smallpox and plague, tuberculosis and polio, childhood killers such as whooping cough and diphtheria – are not only outside the experience of most people, but the events themselves appear to have been erased from our cultural memory” (1)
Understanding the past needs to be more than general memory. If it is sketchy and only anecdotal, we are likely to be dominated by rumour and myth. Media headlines and political statements may still abound but there may be a dearth of facts that help us dig down into the real problems and the effective solutions.
How data has helped get to the real issues
The first case of cholera was reported in England in 1831. Between 1831 and 1854 tens of thousands of people died from the disease. The popular belief of the time that cholera was spread through the air. It was caused by breathing vapours or a “miasma in the atmosphere”. This seemed reasonable at the time and indeed probably passed the “pub test”.
In 1849 Dr John Snow suggested otherwise. He published a paper concluding it was water borne. But acceptance of this did not come until 1854. In that year a major outbreak occurred in Soho. Dr Snow tracked down information from hospital and public records on when the outbreak began and whether the victims drank water from the Broad Street pump. The authorities were hesitant to act and did so only as a trial of removing the pump handle. Dr Snow was proved right. (2)
Without good information and an analysis that correlated the deaths to the source of water, how much longer might it have taken to convince the authorities.
The need for data for longitudinal analysis
For the Coronavirus we need to understand some short-term issues such as what surfaces hold the virus for a long time: petrol pumps, metal hand rails etc. But we also need to collect data for long-term analysis.
When discussing mental health, which we have become far more aware of, or at least more prepared to talk about it, Professor Helen Christiansen said:
“My reading of it is that it's not getting worse, though we don't have very good data sets. So we've only really done proper population data collection over two occasions the last time it's in 2008”. (3)
Transport needs to look closely at what we collect. In the early 1980s Sydney conducted its first household survey. This is an expensive way to collect a relatively small sample. But it is critical to understand the reasoning that leads people to make transport decisions. Transport is a derived activity yet we understand little if we only measure traffic volumes at selected locations.
It might be argued that the Coronavirus means we aren’t traveling so what’s the point. In an article in the December 2017 AITPM newsletter I talked about the need to understand what are the reasons people are not travelling. It arose after the first Fiji household survey showed many people stayed at home. We cannot predict the future unless we know the reasons why people are or are not travelling. We all support the idea of autonomous vehicles to help those with a disability. So how many extra trips will be made? Your guess is as good as mine, but data can help remove the guesswork.
The Olympic Games is one example of an event that we are meant to get some long-term benefits from. It is not just construction projects. I was told that of all the people who would use the train to get to the Atlanta Games in 1996, only 3% had caught a train in the past. It became important then to give them a quality service so that they might consider doing more non-car trips in the future.
In Sydney the infrastructure we built for the 2000 games was probably not as important as people enjoying bus services on 10-minute headway.
For the Coronavirus the big issue could be parcel and goods deliveries. Some people have already been early adopters of home delivery services but others will be forced to try it and might like what they get. There has been a lot of discussion about autonomous parcel deliveries in terms of safety but might our recent experience highlight the issue of capacity on our footpaths.
Who owns the data?
Data ownership: who really owns the data that surveyors like Austraffic collect? There is currently a plethora of surveyors and consultants that are streaming data, in most cases underwritten by a Government agency or client. If you are reading this and you work for a government or contractor will you be happy to see your data collector streaming and or selling your data?
Now is not the moment to prostitute our laws on IP preservation and sell our ethics down the drain. Austraffic does not trade in client-owned data, we at Austraffic respect our client and their rights. There is an opportunity for owners to make the data widely available but we must engage with them rather than ride roughshod over their ownership rights.
If data retention by the owner/purchaser is no longer relevant to today’s business then government at all levels (State, LGA and infrastructure projects alike) need to make this clear and allow a level playing field. The current inaction on data ownership encourages unlimited on-selling of data paid for by the community/taxpayer. On many occasions this will result in the community/taxpayer paying for the same data on multiple occasions as its distribution and fees levied are uncontrolled.
It is not just how we are travelling that is important, it is “why”. When we are faced with a huge disruption such as the Coronavirus it makes us re-evaluate and adapt to the different conditions. What does this mean for the future? With good data collection, analysis and management of the information we collect, we will maximise the services that we can provide to the community.
What are your thoughts? You can join the conversation via our Anything But Average LinkedIn Page.
Ian Townsend “Learning from forgotten epidemics”: by https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/learning-from-forgotten-epidemics/ (date not listed but assumed to be Aug 2007)
John Snow and the Broad Street pump – on the trail of an epidemic https://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/snowcricketarticle.html
Future Tense “Depression, anxiety and social media”: ABC radio program (Sun 17 Nov 2019) and podcast (https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/depression,-anxiety-and-social-media/11655632)