The effect of COVID-19 on our transport networks – a return to normality?

In March 2020, New Zealanders marked a moment in history when our Government announced the country would be going into Level 4 lockdown as a result of COVID-19.  Just over a year on, we can look back to see how travel patterns changed and how lockdowns influenced our travel behaviour. Previous assessments based on a selection of Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency traffic count data, demonstrated a massive reduction in traffic during the initial lockdown, indicating a high level of conformance with Level 3 and 4 travel restrictions.

Methodology

This blog looks at travel behaviour using Apple data. The data received on 13th January 2020 represents 100% value and is the baseline for all other days. Every other day is compared to this and factored to show the relativity between each day. We averaged the results for each month from January 2020 to May 2021.

Have New Zealand mobility trends returned to normal post lockdown for driving, walking and transiting?

Data was plotted from January 2020 through to May 2021, encompassing the initial national lockdown and subsequent lockdowns in Auckland.  When comparing the baseline with a year later, driving behaviour can be broadly considered to have returned to normal (based on the graph below) in Auckland, Wellington, the rest of the North Island and top of the South. However, Canterbury/West Coast and Otago/Southland did not return to pre-lockdown levels, getting to 90% in January 2021. This may reflect changed tourist demand due to the closure of international borders.

Auckland was most affected by the level changes. Traffic levels dipped from 100% to 68% following a Level 3 lockdown in August 2020, and from 102% to 72% following the second community transmission case in late February 2021. It did however recover to pre-COVID-19 levels during periods of Level 1.

NZ regional driving requests

Despite a return to level 1 relatively quickly, New Zealand has still not returned to pre-COVID-19 transport levels. Although driving has largely returned to what can be considered “normality” based on the Apple data, other modes are still reduced compared to baseline. Public transport levels are reduced since the first lockdown, only reaching 70% of previous levels in July 2020 and has averaged 64% since September 2020. Walking however has almost recovered to previous levels reaching 98% in April 2021 and is currently sitting at 95% compared to baseline levels.

New Zealand mode requests

How does this compare to other countries?

New Zealand has been fortunate during the COVID-19 pandemic being a small, isolated nation with the ability to effectively close its borders early. Comparatively, other countries have handled COVID-19 differently.

New Zealand had a level system with various restrictions. National level 4 lockdown was announced on 25 March 2020 with highest lockdown restrictions lasting 5 weeks. Level 3 lasted an additional two weeks. There were subsequent regional lockdowns for Auckland.

Australia had a state lockdown with states closing their borders for varying levels of time, starting 20 March 2020. The Australian Government implemented a three-step framework with each step imposing different conditions as lockdown was slowly lifted.  Australia’s second city, Melbourne had an extended lockdown lifted in 28th October after becoming the epicentre of the COVID-19 second wave. Further lockdowns for Melbourne occurred in February 2021 and again from late May 2021 after outbreaks.

The UK was slow to initially lock down, but on 23 March a lockdown was official. The UK experienced a long lockdown with restrictions easing in August 2020. However tight restrictions were introduced again during mid-September and October 2020 through until the early part of 2021.

The USA had a lockdown response at a state level, with each state imposing varying degrees of restrictions. A national state of emergency was declared on 13 March 2020. Most states closed non-essential services by late March 2020.

Data for these countries are available to compare with mobility trends in New Zealand and can be separated into driving, walking and transit requests.

Driving requests - international comparison

Driving is the most resilient transport mode in all countries, with people being quick to readopt it after lockdown measures were relaxed. Lockdown reduced the amount of driving during April, where there were restrictions on movement across the board. However driving continues to rise in the USA  and the UK to well above baseline, whereas levels have plateaued in Australia and New Zealand.

Walking requests - international comparison

Walking shows a similar pattern to driving, with the changes in lockdown restrictions being clear for each country. The USA is the only country where walking has returned to previous levels. It is clear that there is a seasonality difference between the northern and southern hemispheres, with walking levels potentially being exaggerated past the baseline during the summer months in the northern hemisphere. A direct comparison with January 2020 and January 2021 shows that walking levels have almost fully recovered for all countries.

Public transport requests – International Comparison

Public transport shows a different picture. None of the countries have recovered to pre-COVID-19 levels. On average patronage halved across the board in the aftermath of the initial lockdowns. Despite recent increases, public transport has not “bounced back” anywhere, although the United Kingdom recently reached 94% of pre-COVID-19 levels in May 2021, when lockdown measures were reduced. Patronage is also increasing in the USA.  Analysis of PT patronage in Auckland confirms levels remain below that of pre-COVID-19 levels.

Lockdown restrictions and mobility trends

It is clear that lockdown restrictions imposed around the world have had an effect on mobility. Despite New Zealand and Australia’s success in managing COVID-19 with consequently fewer restrictions, travel patterns are similar between all four countries. Lockdown restrictions reduced demand, particularly for public transport. New Zealand’s public transport demand appears to have been the slowest to recover. The time series analysis of transport mode share enabled by the Apple data provides a baseline for measuring success in moving away from car dependency.

In the context of COVID-19 the changes in travel behaviour based on the New Zealand government’s COVID response is evident, and can continue to be applied as New Zealand (and the world) recovers from the pandemic. As governments think about their longer term policies for both addressing COVID-19 and climate change and sustainability, the data set provides significant insight and opens up a range of other applications including considering the level of compliance with travel restrictions under different scenarios.