Post-pandemic cities: Urban life in the wake of COVID-19

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Due to social distancing, Melbourne public transport is running at 18 per cent of its usual amount (Image via Pexels)

City infrastructure has felt the effects of the pandemic in various facets from public transport to social density, write Dr Peter Fisher and Adrian Ponton.

‘MORE TRAINS, MORE OFTEN’ says the billboards fronting Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel works. The construction authority could well be reflecting on the veracity of that slogan, or maybe not. On the one hand, more trains look to be needed if social distancing continues and platform crowding is to be eliminated. On the other hand, fewer trains will be required if a raw shift occurs in workplaces and/or people shying away from crowded platforms and trains.

In that case, such giant infrastructure projects and the public transport operators will incur financial bailouts because of the loss of revenue and additional operating costs.

Out with the old, in with the new

This is a wild and woolly landscape, the sort of stuff to drive engineers and planners questing for certainty and predictability nuts. With the World Health Organisation advising that the virus could stick around, social distancing looks to have an assured future extending over a 2-3 year time frame or, as some contend, much longer as a vaccine may never be all that encompassing.

There could be other viral cabs off the rank, too, fresh from human-zoonosis interfaces in China and Asia. That will in part depend upon the findings of the independent/W.H.O. inquiry, although earlier indications from China, in particular, are that wet markets will be shut down.

As this plays out, stress faults are appearing in local public transport systems where, for example, the New South Wales Division of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union has been demanding that its frontline workers be supplied with masks. The union would be treading in the footsteps of Deutsche Bahn, which has launched a hygiene and cleaning program including the acquisition of 19 million facial masks and implemented a directive for ‘all DB employees who have contact with customers... to wear a face covering’

Their importance is underscored by a finding that 40 per cent of infections arise from asymptomatic carriers.

On the other side of the coin, the NSW Transport Minister is advising people not to travel during the peak. Transport apps in NSW now tell you whether or not there is seat capacity on public transport at peak times as the state moves to keep public transport open but maintaining social distancing.

Clearing people from stations: Long queues

In a simulation undertaken by The Guardian on ridership from Clapham North’s tube station in London:

‘...only four people instead of 42 will be able to get on each train. Meaning a total of 96 an hour can leave the station.


If everyone tried to resume their morning commute, this would leave 909 people waiting outside Clapham North station. The resulting 1.8km queue (leaving 2m between each would-be commuter) would stretch back almost two stops to Clapham South.’

The current situation in Melbourne relies on individuals maintaining social distancing, but no ability to have people on the train to police spacing. With patronage running at 18 per cent of overall public transport (about 3 million daily journeys, not 20 million), that regime is not hard to adhere to. Quite a bit of fleet downtime, however, will be incurred to meet the need for deep cleaning. 

Running a COVID-19 safe system

To increase the bandwidth of peak services under a staggering of school/work hours – in other words, flexible working arrangements – requires more crews rather than more trains.  However, the issue with train availability is the need to ratchet-up between trip cleaning/decontamination and hand sanitiser replenishment — hand sanitiser dispensers create an opportunity for spreading germs unless they are touchless.

Furthermore, trains missing out on their scheduled inspections and maintenance during the day would put more pressure on maintenance facilities in the midnight–dawn time frame. Equally, greater utilisation of trains will increase the frequency for inspection and maintenance.

But the real limitation will be the number of qualified running staff. This could be covered by overtime, deferring annual leave and even asking people to defer retirement in the short term. Moreover, the time and resources required to train and qualify additional drivers would frustrate a rapid increase in new staff. In the longer run, driverless trains, which are already operating successfully on the Chatswood-Tallawong line in Sydney, would overcome this restraint.

The big builds

Since governments rediscovered infrastructure, particularly the shovel-ready variety, there’s been a raft of heavy rail projects — notably, the Sydney Metro, Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel and Brisbane’s Cross River Rail. Such projects are in lockstep with office accommodation housed in equally big build glass towers, branded by one commentator as multi-storey vats filled with knowledge workers. These glass towers have the potential to spread the virus, too.

In the event that these endpoints get back to pre-pandemic levels of occupancy, building owners/tenants will have to grapple with the same risk and liability issues that have troubled public authorities in stations and on trains. Out will go hot desking (shared workstations) or costly deep cleaning between different tenures will be required. Elevators will need strict person number limits to maintain social distancing — how that would allow ready access to floors without queuing in foyers is anybody’s guess. Airtight spaces also present challenges not altogether dissimilar to those of long-distance flights.

Redoing the city?

As a result, workplaces appear destined to become more footloose. In particular, “knowledge workers” using laptops, tablets and smartphones have, through lockdown, employer discretion or simply fear of contracting the disease in/on crowded downtowns and trains, been working from home. Should that trend consolidate “day-ends” will be suburban rather than people-dense places — alias multi-storey office buildings which may be left near empty.

As a counter, heavily impacted Milan is running a competition to assemble projects and ideas from architects, designers and creatives to rethink public spaces so that they comply with the city’s new safety rules.

New species?

Writing in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Carl Newton records:

...just when the remote-work revolution looked inevitable, it lost momentum. In February, 2013, the recently-appointed CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, put a stop to all remote work at the company by means of an all-hands memo from H.R. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the memo read. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”


IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Best Buy and other companies curtailed their telework programs; Silicon Valley companies became known for the ludic enticements – free meals, coffee bars, climbing gyms – that they used to keep workers at the office.


A month after the Yahoo memo landed, an article in Business Insider lauded Google’s Corporate Concierge team, which helped its engineers accomplish mundane personal tasks, such as planning dinner parties or finding Halloween costumes. “Employees who work for the search giant don’t have to worry about much besides their work,” it concluded.

Feels like a century ago, doesn’t it?

A century earlier, Charles Darwin thought that evolutionary change could not be seen in a single lifetime but new species of birds and non-human animals are now very much a reality in cities.

Is it time to add humans to that list?

Dr Peter Fisher is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture & Built Environment, Deakin University.

Adrian Ponton is currently a lecturer in Rail Accident Investigations at Central Queensland University. He has over four decades of experience in rail transportation systems including safety policy development, management and delivery of significant change projects.

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