Literally overnight, the country’s busiest roads emptied out; buses and trains were stripped of passengers, and car batteries quietly gave up the ghost as vehicles sat idle in garages, driveways and quiet streets for more than a month of national lockdown.

Since then, virus prevention measures have eased off and many people’s lives have returned to near normal. Which leaves the question of just what impact the lockdown period had on transport in New Zealand and whether it will have any lasting effects.

The traffic

Data over this period tells a predictable story. As soon as the country went into lockdown, the number of cars on the roads plummeted to around 15% of what it would normally be. It rose to about 40% under Alert Level 3, and then closer to 80% under Level 2. Now, at Level 1, it’s back to around 90%.

Fewer cars, of course, means less congestion, and that’s one aspect of the lockdown that people will be sad to see go. Traffic delays all but disappeared in our cities during Levels 4 and 3; a trip into Auckland CBD from Albany north of Auckland during the morning rush hour usually takes about 35 minutes. The journey was taking just 10 minutes during Levels 4 and 3. That increased to 15 minutes under Level 2 and to around 20 minutes as we moved into Level 1. The timings for trips from Lower Hutt into the Wellington CBD are almost the same.

How long before congestion levels revert back to pre-lockdown? No one really knows but with low levels of economic activity – meaning less driving – coupled with low population growth and more people working from home, it’s likely to be eased for some time still.

The crashes

The massive reduction in driving during lockdown was matched by a huge drop in road deaths, but people may be surprised to learn that there were still 12 deaths during the 33 days of Alert Level 4.

It was still vastly less than in normal times, with the nine lives lost in April being the lowest monthly death toll since records began in the 1960s. In recent years, there has been an average of 32 road deaths in April, so there was a 71% reduction on the back of the virus restrictions.

But almost immediately after we moved out of Level 4, the number of crashes jumped back up, and May and June both had numbers of fatal crashes that were in line with previous years.

A striking aspect of lockdown’s impact on road deaths is that it illustrates the vast difference between New Zealand and the current global leader on road safety: Norway. If we had nine deaths every month, like in April, our rate of road deaths would be the same as Norway’s average rate. With the whole country under lockdown, our road safety performance only drew level with Norway in non-virus times.

The air quality

With so many less vehicles on the road, not surprisingly, there was a major reduction in emissions and traffic pollution over the course of the lockdown.

NIWA’s monitoring of air quality in our three main cities recorded drops of 65-75% in traffic pollution, while an international paper published in Nature Climate Change used electronic travel and congestion data to estimate that New Zealand reduced greenhouse emissions by 42% while the population was required to stay at home.

Those are reductions that would be welcomed by anyone wanting to reduce our environmental impact, but the challenge of course is finding ways to achieve it without the severe downsides of largely shutting down the country.

Just how big the challenge of meeting global climate change targets was illustrated by the international research, which calculated that the likely reductions in emissions worldwide in 2020 will be in line with what is needed year-on-year for decades to meet international commitments.

The money

The bulk of the money that pays for New Zealand’s roads and public transport comes from the fuel taxes and Road User Charges that drivers pay, and it is big sums of cash – about $4 billion a year. With most people staying at home for a month, the amount of fuel purchased took a massive dive, which flowed through to how much revenue the Government received for the transport budget.

The month of lockdown is likely to mean hundreds of millions of dollars less revenue than expected and, at the same time, the Government had to spend a lot more than normal on public transport. About half the cost of bus and train trips are normally paid from road taxes.

During the lockdown period, public transport was made free for users to remove the risk of people handling tickets and spreading the virus. That meant the whole cost was covered by fuel tax, resulting in an extra $100 million taken out of the transport budget. The AA is hopeful that some of the Government’s Covid-19 recovery funds will help ease the impact on transport revenue but there could well be less in the transport kitty than previously planned for.

That will have a ripple effect on future transport plans. Money that had been counted on may not be available, which could see projects that had been in the pipeline delayed or changed. With some major projects that are already under way (like the final sections of the Waikato Expressway), workers have been back on site since April, but because the wet winter months can make much of road construction impossible, timelines may be pushed out a lot further than the month or so lost under lockdown.

There was no doubt many positives to transport during lockdown, but the negatives must be recognised as well. Perhaps the clearest learning to come from the experience is just how big an impact the ability to move from A to B has on all aspects of life.

Reported by Barney Irvine and Dylan Thomsen for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue

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