CAR USAGE IN A COVID-19 WORLD

In this article ACA Research, our partner in the AAAA Aftermarket Dashboard, takes a look at how vehicle usage is evolving in 2020

COVID-19 has changed the way we live, forcing us to re-evaluate behaviours we once took for granted. In Australia, this saw us locked down through April, gradually re-opening in May and June, and then re-implementing restrictions off the back of a second wave of infections through July.
These experiences have fundamentally changed our movement patterns, with working from home becoming a ‘new normal.’ This leaves us however with a number of questions for the automotive sector. Australians might not be travelling to work, but in many cases, these were mass transit journeys, so what impact is that having on personal vehicle usage? Also, are we now more likely to use cars for local (or longer distance) trips, whether that be recreation, retail, or other forms of relaxation?
To unpack these questions, we have taken a deeper look into Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Report. Using location data covering the period Feb – July ‘20, we get a longitudinal view of movement through the pandemic.
At an overall level (Figure One), we can see the impact of nationwide lockdowns. Public transport usage is well down, with time spent at the workplace, at public places and at retail and recreational locations also experiencing substantial declines.

Figure One. Source: Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Report – Australia

Looking at overall numbers does not however tell the full story. Instead, we need to focus in on a more granular level.
Firstly, we can see that time spent in the workplace (Figure Two), unsurprisingly dropped off during lockdown. While some states saw a level of recovery in May, we then however see that the recovery flattened out in June, with most normalising at reduced levels. Victoria is clearly the outlier here, with a lower level of recovery in May and June (as they more slowly re-opened), followed by another dip in July off the back of the current outbreak. This will decline further in August, given the stricter restrictions now in force.
Regardless, we can comfortably say that travel to work will stay at lower levels for the foreseeable future.
Given this, it is no surprise that time spent at transport hubs has dropped off around the country (Figure Three). What is important to note here though is that while some Australians did start coming back to the office in May and June, usage of public transport stayed lower. Encouragingly for workshops, this means that where Australians are commuting, they are more likely to use personal vehicles. This is again a trend that’s likely to remain in place over the short to medium term.

Beyond changes in workplace activity, March also saw Australians begin to tail off their visitation to parks and beaches (Figure Four).
As we take this forward over time, we can see varying levels of recovery. Increased freedoms play a big role, but also the impact of closed borders on interstate movements. In particular here, Tasmania has struggled to regain lost ground given its heavy reliance on tourist trade. Queensland and the Northern Territory however saw the strongest rebound off the back of borders reopening in time for school holidays (which has turned out to be good timing with borders now closed again).
This is again however largely promising for the automotive trade, with consumers likely to ensure they fix any niggling issues before embarking on a road trip North.
Finally, let’s look at one of the most significantly impacted areas of the economy – retail (Figure Five). The Victorian data isn’t pretty, and is again likely to fall further in August. Despite this, July numbers were more promising for other states, with many consumers returning to shops, restaurants, and cafes at (or close to) pre-pandemic levels. Anecdotally however, this is again now slowing down, so this will be one area to monitor further in the August data.

Taking the current behaviours forward, it is safe to assume that apart from Victoria, what we are seeing now will be the norm for the rest of 2020. Flexible working arrangements will stick around, but Australians will use cars for short (and longer) trips.
Beyond that, it will depend to a great extent on the spread of the virus, but if current levels are maintained (and Victoria returns to a more manageable position), we can expect the status quo to continue into 2021, and potentially until we have a vaccine.
Workshops around the country can therefore safely plan for this, assuming a level of demand going forward. Key however will be ensuring service delivery is catering to the greater level of caution we are seeing across the population.

This column was prepared for AAA Magazine by ACA Research, our partners in the AAAA Aftermarket Dashboard which is delivered to AAAA members each quarter.

For more information, visit www.acaresearch.com.au or contact Ben Selwyn on bselwyn@acaresearch.com.au