The COVID-19 pandemic has put Australia’s infrastructure to the test, and has left governments and industry with the mammoth task of creating innovative solutions to support the nation’s infrastructure well into the future, according to Infrastructure Australia CEO Romilly Madew.
IA’s interim report for the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan, launched on Wednesday, highlights vast changes in the way Australians use critical infrastructure across the transport, telecommunications, digital, energy, water, waste, and social infrastructure sectors.
Produced at the request of the commonwealth, the document is the first comprehensive report to look at the impacts of COVID-19 on Australian infrastructure sectors.
Madew told The Mandarin that by identifying a baseline for what has happened during COVID, IA can then understand the “stickiness” of trends that have emerged.
“And there’s a couple of really interesting trends that have come through. One of them is that coming back out into the ‘COVID normal’, it’s looking like congestion is returning to normal. But interestingly enough, public transport isn’t … [but] used car sales have increased,” she said.
Public transport in most cities fell to 10- 30% of normal levels in the initial pandemic lockdown, but has settled at a ‘new norm’ of 60-70% in the second half of the year.
Australian Infrastructure Plan project director Katharine Hole said IA would continue to watch the transport sector closely.
“If you look at trends in Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne — which had the added impact of the second lockdown — public transport hasn’t returned to normal in any of those cities, despite the fact that Perth and Brisbane have had quite a different experience in terms of COVID case numbers and lock downs,” she told The Mandarin.
“The only city where public transport has returned to normal is Adelaide, so there’s some interesting patterns that I think all states should be looking at about how to get people back to public transport use.”
Trends outlined in the interim report include:
- Digitisation — A rapid shift from physical to virtual interaction, with increased convenience for users and providers. Nine in 10 Australian firms adopted new technology including collaboration tools and cyber security, while monthly online retail growth was 5-6 times the annual growth in 2019.
- Decentralisation — A redistribution of demand for utilities, and increased vibrancy in regional centres. There was a 200% increase in net migration from capital cities to regional areas.
- Localism — Better use of local infrastructure, and local and regional vibrancy were evident, with more local trips and travel remaining in regional and local areas of WA, SA and TAS. There was a 23% increase in the utilisation of national parks and green spaces nationally.
- Service innovation — Providers responded by moving teaching curricula and students online, telehealth consultations grew, and transport services introduced new protective measures, such as increased cleaning, social distancing initiatives and real time occupancy data.
- Adaptability — A responsive repurposing of infrastructure and assets, and quickly scaling up latent capacity. For example, NBN released latent capacity to service providers to address network congestion, while health infrastructure was repurposed to create 291% increased capacity.
Madew said that while it’s too early to tell if these trends will continue for the long term — and how exactly they will impact projects — IA and the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics have been convening a joint COVID-19 Transport Demand Modelling Cross-jurisdiction Roundtable, “to really start working with the jurisdictions to see what transport modelling is looking like” and whether the trends begin to stick.
What does increased remote work mean for governments?
The report noted that around 4 million employees — 30% of the total workforce — have been working from home since March 2020. Around a third of those workers hope to remain remote.
This trend has led to widespread office vacancies, greater strain on the broadband network, greater energy and water consumption in residential areas and increased local activity, including local traffic congestion and demand for greenspace, IA found.
These are trends that IA will be keeping a close eye on, because they could potentially last well into the future. For governments, that might mean CBD buildings would need to be repurposed, and cities would begin to change.
“It’s been done before many times. It was done in Canberra a number of years ago when they repurposed office buildings into residential,” Madew said.
But governments will also need to consider “what the trends mean” for shopping centres, the building and construction sector, and public transport.
“It really is around shift and pivot,” Madew said.
She noted that as a result of the pandemic, people have been travelling differently with many avoiding peak times. For example, they may travel to work really early in the morning and then leave around lunch time.
“So there’s these really interesting nuances coming through. And they may hold but that’ll be interesting around public transport demand and modelling, and then whether services change their timetables for instance.”
In order to prepare for something that may or may not continue into the future, Hole said governments must explore innovative, flexible solutions.
For example, to help people travel in a more ‘COVID-safe’ way, Sydney created a number of pop-up cycleways out of existing infrastructure, such as beach car parks.
“It was really interesting to see how you could reuse the same infrastructure, and that’s certainly going to be a big discussion for us in the social infrastructure section of our plan — How can we think and set the frameworks up to multi-purpose sites?” Hole said.
“I think it’s also requiring people to think a little bit beyond the traditional Monday to Friday, work-week type scenario, to how our communities use that local infrastructure.
“It’s about pulling together all the disciplines to come up with a solution, and very much making sure the communities are involved in that discussion so you actually get a solution that works on the ground. And that’s happening a lot in government but we’ll be encouraging that a lot more in the plan.”
The report noted that the pandemic hasn’t been entirely negative for the infrastructure sector.
“The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that to date Australia has handled the pandemic well, supported by critical infrastructure services and networks that were able to reconfigure quickly and deliver differently, and showed a resilience beyond many other OECD nations,” it said.
Another highlight, according to Madew, has been seeing the collaboration that emerged between governments and industry, within governments, and across jurisdictions.
“There are so many different working groups that never existed before,” she said.
“We chair a cross-jurisdictional working group every two weeks, which includes representatives — federally and jurisdictionally — from Treasury, Infrastructure, and Transport … It’s great to work within that environment. Very positive.”
Hole said that while 2020 has been difficult for many, IA has hoped to highlight the positives — particularly about how well governments adapted — and has encouraged people to think about how the good outcomes of the pandemic can be continued into 2021.
Final report underway
The final 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan — a major reform document that will provide a roadmap to support recovery from the impacts of the pandemic — is set to be released next year.
The report has been progressing well, Hole said, and IA has been applying methodology such as Theory of Change and multi-criteria analysis to develop the solutions to be outlined in the document.
“We’re using multi-criteria analysis to kind of help tell the narrative and build the case for reform, so looking at the risks to implementation, the cost of implementation and a real focus on the benefits for users and the benefits to communities,” she said.
“The multi-criteria analysis for us will also be important so we’re not coming out with a report with a large shopping list of recommendations … It makes for a much more tangible, and easily digestible package for government.”
Papers on the methodology used by IA will be released in January, “because we like to be really transparent about what we’re doing”, Hole said.