by Romilly Madew AO FTSE, CEO, Infrastructure Australia

Infrastructure Australia has released its findings from research into how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way Australians use infrastructure, the impact on long-term planning and development, and the key trends that have emerged.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, Australia’s governments took early action, introducing travel bans, lockdowns and border controls, and supporting domestic supply chains. Communities adopted social distancing and moved to working from home.

While these early measures successfully contained national case numbers, they prompted profound changes to the way people moved, consumed and worked, which changed patterns of infrastructure use.

The continuation of infrastructure construction across major projects was a key source of economic activity and employment at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. However, months of lockdowns, social distancing and working from home has driven sweeping changes in how Australians use critical infrastructure.

Although the pandemic put our infrastructure to the test over the past year, Australia’s governments and infrastructure providers navigated dramatic changes to community behaviour and network requirements, and rapidly adjusted their service provision across the transport, telecommunications, digital, energy, water, waste and social sectors.

Infrastructure Australia’s new report, Infrastructure Beyond COVID 19: A national study on the impacts of the pandemic on Australia, found that compared with other OECD countries, our infrastructure networks have proven to be resilient under pressure and open to innovation.

Developed in collaboration with L.E.K. Consulting, our report presents a moment-in-time snapshot of how the pandemic has changed the way we use infrastructure, and considers which of these changes could have lasting impacts on how we plan, fund and deliver the services we all rely on.

It finds that while COVID-19 has put a pause on the traditional driver of infrastructure – Net Overseas Migration – the pace of change in the sector has generally increased, with new emerging trends.

Major shifts in how Australians work, travel and consume goods and services in the wake of COVID-19 has driven the redistribution of existing demand, mode or channel switches, and acceleration of longer-term trends that were already underway.A rapid shift to digital service delivery

We estimate that around four million Australians have been working from home since March 2020, representing 30 per cent of the total workforce.

Our report found that a third of those people would like to continue doing so at least once a week, suggesting a permanent move towards a hybrid structure that will see a split of working time between the office and home – with significant impacts for infrastructure use.

Add to this 17.2 million telehealth consults between March and June 2020, teaching curricula and students moving online, and countless Zoom meetings, the past year has been characterised by a rapid shift from physical to virtual interaction with our health and safety front of mind.

Not surprisingly, this put significant strain on our broadband networks, with spikes in NBN bandwidth congestion growing to an average 60 minutes per week per service at the height of the lockdowns in March 2020, and increased instances of customer complaints – particularly from small to medium-sized businesses.

The impact of large-scale remote working led to a surge in usage, with telecommunication providers responding by leveraging extra capacity in the network. Latent broadband capacity was released to cope with the surge in demand – an example of responsive repurposing of infrastructure and assets that speaks to the resilience and adaptability of the network.

However, some suburban areas experienced network outages, and many regional Australians experienced internet access issues during lockdown restrictions, impacting their ability to work from home or undertake schooling remotely.

Working from home also catalysed a rapid uptake of digital collaboration tools – accelerating developing trends and triggering investment in cloud-based systems and cyber security.

Australians also accelerated their move to online retail channels and digital services, resulting in a substantial uplift in online sales and increased broadband network congestion. The pandemic drove a 100 per cent growth in monthly online retail, five times the annual growth recorded in 2019, resulting in a growth in parcel delivery and micro-freight.

Renewed vibrancy in regional areas

As a result of social distancing and work from home opportunities, some households embraced the opportunity to move away from dense metro areas, resulting in a 200 per cent increase in net migration from capital cities to regional areas.

This caused an immediate increase in capital city vacancies, while rental demand increased in regional and coastal towns including Newcastle, Wollongong and the Sunshine Coast.

Some regions are also seeing a local boom of regional tourism and population growth, and are experiencing less severe COVID-19 impacts. Strengthened regional cities, hub-and-spoke service models, and improvements to liveability and affordability can refocus regional investment.

The longevity of these changes is uncertain, however the impacts are likely to persist for some time as Australians continue to seek more affordable housing outside of the inner metro areas. If this trend continues, we could see reduced demand for urban transport and increased pressure on broadband networks in regional centres.

Recognising the value of parks and recreation

In 2020, Australians have evidently cherished greenspaces, both in metro areas and national parks. There has been a 23 per cent increase in our use of national parks and greenspaces nationally. Research also shows that 87 per cent of Australians have noticed a positive shift in community attitudes towards urban green space, particularly amongst those living in high-density areas.

In a survey conducted by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry & Environment, 46 per cent of respondents claimed to have spent more time in parklands and gardens with many (94 per cent) using these spaces to undertake personal exercise.

Further, 72 per cent of NSW survey respondents cited that local parks have been ‘especially useful’ or ‘appreciated more’ during COVID-19, with Hermitage Foreshore, Western Sydney Parklands and Centennial Park visits up by around 144 per cent and around 100 per cent respectively compared to the previous year.

Generally, increased local activity including intense use of local greenspace could lead to reduced demand on toll roads. Policy reforms and programs supporting access and uptake could drive even greater sustainability.

Mapping the long-term impacts on public transport use

Across the country, public transport providers moved quickly to support social distancing and hygiene measures, making improvements such as increased cleaning, and applying real-time occupancy data to public transport in line with social distancing initiatives.

However, in a reversal to the earlier trend of increasing public transport use, patronage in most cities fell to 10–30 per cent of normal levels in the initial lockdown and settled at a ‘new norm’ of 60–70 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels.

Traffic levels rebounded quickly, along with an uplift in second-hand car purchases, potentially indicating that higher car mode share may persist for some time.

A key focus for government and industry in 2021 will be to understand the structural impacts of COVID-19 on travel demand within Australia.

Together with the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics, Infrastructure Australia has convened a COVID-19 Cross-jurisdiction Roundtable to facilitate the exchange of ideas, techniques and tools for considering the long-term impacts of COVID-19 in travel demand models.

Taking a collaborative approach, we are working with industry, sector experts and thought leaders across government to understand how COVID-19 has changed the way we use infrastructure.

This will inform the Australian Infrastructure Plan, a major reform document that will provide a roadmap for the infrastructure sector to support recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, due for release in mid-2021.

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