02 Sep 2021

Working from home throws spanner in works for major Brisbane transport projects

Brisbane’s new multibillion-dollar transit projects are likely to feel the financial impact of fewer people working from the CBD because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Queensland government’s $5.4 billion Cross River Rail and Brisbane City Council’s $1.23 billion Brisbane Metro projects included fundamental assumptions in their business cases about how, when and where commuters moved.

Both projects are geared to new jobs being produced in the Brisbane CBD and to workers travelling between the suburbs and the city.

“While most residential growth is forecast to be outside Brisbane in areas such as the Gold Coast, Moreton Bay, Ipswich and the Sunshine Coast, almost half of all new jobs will remain in Brisbane,” Cross River Rail’s 2017 business case says.

The Brisbane Metro’s fleet of 60 electric buses plans to add an extra 19,600 daily commuters to its network by 2024, according to its updated business case.

However, the pandemic has changed those assumptions.

An Infrastructure Australia report into the pandemic’s impact on infrastructure found about a third of the nation’s workforce, almost 4 million people, worked from home during the first year of the pandemic. About 42 per cent of those then hoped to continue working from home going forward.

A new Infrastructure Australia report into post-pandemic usage is due within weeks.

PricewaterhouseCoopers director Ben Hamer said while COVID-19 had not killed CBDs, it would force major changes to a hybrid work/home office model going forward.

“We have seen in Australian workers, 74 per cent of them want to work two to three days at home and the rest in the office,” Dr Hamer said.

“Only 10 per cent want to work five days from the office, while 16 per cent want to work five days week from home.”

Dr Hamer said these percentages were aspirational, “but it does show a realistic mood of moving away from the office”.

Such a fundamental shift could spell bad news for major transport projects, designed with pre-COVID habits in mind.

Fewer passengers on public transport will also force the Queensland government to pay more to cover the expenses of every journey.

The state subsidy for train journeys has doubled from $21.15 to $40.97 per fare due to the pandemic patronage slump.

Subsidies per south-east Queensland bus trips increased from $4.02 to $7.30.

Infrastructure Australia chief policy researcher Peter Colacino said, before the latest wave of lockdowns, public transport patronage had settled to about 70 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

Mr Colacino said as new work models became entrenched mass transit projects which ran in and out of CBDs would need to augmented by newer services running across neighbourhoods.

“Public transport will need to change,” he said.

Mr Colacino said mass transit needed to evolve because the future job of the CBD was building ideas and products from teams in collaboration, while the work from homes would be maintaining lifestyle services.

“Public transport isn’t just directed towards taking you in to the CBD, it thinks about where you go to drop your kids at daycare, and pick your kids up from school,” he said.

But the politicians overseeing both projects say there is no cause for alarm.

Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey said the pandemic had certainly made “short-term impacts” on patronage in 2020 and 2021.

“Part of that is people working from home much more and part of that is people being ultra-cautious about public transport during the pandemic,” he said.

Mr Bailey said he did not believe public transport patronage would return until vaccination rates were over 70 per cent.

“But how many, and at what rate, that is the unknown,” he said.

Mr Bailey said it was too early to gauge the impact of extra people working from home on Cross River Rail, which was due to open in 2025.

“That is four years away,” he said.

“It is very hard to make an estimation of patronage for 2025, but we certainly hope we are in a much more normal state of being in 2025 than we are this year, or even next year.”

Brisbane City Council’s transport committee chairman Ryan Murphy said the death of the CBD has been “greatly exaggerated”.

“We need to just treat the concept with a little caution because if we plan for one-third of the workforce working remotely, then we don’t build that extra capacity into the busway network,” he said.

“Then we will be in real trouble come 2032 and the Olympics and Paralympics.”

Cr Murphy said public transport and work-from-home trends were difficult to predict.

“Basing long-term projections on what is happening right now during COVID-19 would be just as problematic as trying to base everything on this new normal where everyone is going to spend some time at home,” he said.

“... Our university sector is so important to our city and these people don’t own cars. Students don’t own cars. They have to use the public transport network.”

Cr Murphy said he doubted poor public transport patronage would continue beyond 2022 and the “freshness” of Brisbane Metro electric buses, which he said will be well above the “clunky agricultural feel” of older buses, would attract commuters.

“More and more people are getting their vaccinations, and we have seen other cities start to return to ‘normality’ once vaccination rates are higher,” he said.

“I don’t think we can expect lower patronage to continue into 2023 when the Brisbane Metro starts to come online.”

SOURCE: https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/politics/queensland/working-from-home-throws-spanner-in-works-for-major-brisbane-transport-projects-20210819-p58k8c.html

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