Covid Impacts 2020 Canberra Christmas Exodus to Sydney

The Covid-related travel restrictions resulted in a Christmas-time slump in traffic on the highway between Canberra and Sydney, but data do not yet show how this compares to the depression in traffic when Covid-19 first set in.

In the Christmas period of 2020, every state and territory had some level of travel restriction to residents of Sydney, where a Covid cluster had recently been detected.

Canberra is a stone’s throw away from Sydney by Australian standards, separated by a mere three and a half hours’ worth of open road. During Christmas, Canberra tends to be quite empty as its sizable transitory population goes elsewhere for the holiday period. During this period in 2020 however, had any Canberra residents travelled to Sydney, they would have had to self-isolate for two weeks on return. Furthermore, the Australian Capital Territory government advised against travel to Sydney.

Perhaps as a result of this and a general sedentary atmosphere induced by the pandemic, anecdotal accounts suggest that Canberra was more populated than usual during the Christmas of 2020. I set out to determine what effect — if any — Covid and the concomitant border closures had on the annual Christmas-time Canberra exodus.

To approximate the impact of these measures, I turned to mobile speed camera data from the ACT government’s Traffic Camera Office, available from the ACT Open Data Portal. This dataset describes the operations of mobile speed cameras installed in vans to measure the speed of traffic passing in both directions. Theoretically, the number of vehicles checked per hour would be an accurate reflection of the volume of traffic on the road during that time. By extension, this would correlate to the total rate of transit on that road. Though individual data points would be marred by relatively large biases, a smoothed trendline of these points would yield a reasonably accurate representation of transit trends over time.

To this end, the visualisation below shows four sites, frequented by mobile speed cameras, that feed into the mouth of the Federal Highway, which connects Sydney to Canberra.

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The north-east of the ACT, with the four key mobile camera sites indicated

There are not enough data from each camera site to produce sufficiently robust individual trendlines. However, the data can be moderated and aggregated to produce a general score to be smoothed.

Moderating the rate of camera checks per hour — the colours of the points correlate to the colours of the camera sites in the map above

The graph below shows a trendline of traffic in and out of the mouth of the Federal Highway over the last three and a half years.

Trendline of the moderated checks per hour values

There is a marked dip — the deepest in three years — from March 2020 to the end of June in the same year, as the Covid-19 pandemic found its way into Australia and the National Cabinet imposed the nation-wide lockdown.

Transit picked back up to normal levels afterwards and even boomed around October but fell once again as the Avalon cluster in Sydney grew and travel restrictions were imposed. There are not yet enough data to compare the relative depths of the two slumps. January data is expected sometime in February and may provide clarification.

@noah_yim | Bachelor of Law and International Relations at the ANU | (trying to be a) freelance journo. Words in @canberratimes, @ProSyn, @Woroni and others.

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