Australia’s Covid recovery: which capital cities have bounced back best?

Activity across Sydney and Melbourne’s central business districts is still below pre-Covid levels as work from home preferences keep office vacancies high – however, the business community is heartened by a surge in recreational visits that is expected to “rebalance” Australian cities.

Melbourne’s CBD was 33% less busy from mid-September to mid-November this year compared with the same period in 2019, with Sydney’s CBD slightly more active, down by 30% on pre-Covid levels, according to movement data drawn from anonymous mobile phone activity and analysed by research firm Roy Morgan.

In Brisbane – which experienced a fraction of the Covid lockdown restrictions in place in Melbourne and Sydney – the CBD recovery was more pronounced, with movement down just 9% on pre-Covid levels.

Roy Morgan’s analysis found that while CBD usage peaked during the week before Covid, the higher workday peaks are not as apparent when looking at the 2022 data.

“In 2019 the weekend troughs are very visually apparent but in 2022 we see [in a sense] ‘longer weekends’ as people work from home, especially on Mondays and Fridays, and are more likely to come into the office midweek,” said Roy Morgan chief executive Michele Levine. Covid waves in January, April, May and late July, as well as in recent weeks, saw a drop-off in movement, according to the data.

Similar mobility data published by Google shows that, by the middle of October, visits to workplaces in the City of Melbourne during the week were about 20% below pre-Covid levels, and, in the City of Sydney council area, visits to workplaces during the week were down about 30%-40% on pre-Covid levels.

Increased working from home habits appear to be a driving force on CBD activity, with Property Council of Australia data for October showing the average occupancy rate for office buildings in Melbourne’s CBD at 45% of pre-pandemic levels, Sydney at 58%, Brisbane at 64%, Adelaide at 76% and Perth at 78%. Australians’ preference for job flexibility has grown since Covid, with “work from home” the top search term on job website Seek for several months.

However, early data indicates CBDs are increasingly becoming recreational destinations with usage more spread out over the week.

The Google data shows visits to retail and recreation attractions in the City of Melbourne had returned to normal on most weekends and surpassed pre-Covid weekend data at some points, but figures during the week were still about 30%-40% lower. In the City of Sydney over the same period, visits to retail and places of recreation were similarly nearing pre-pandemic levels on the weekend.

Harbour views also appear to be a huge drawcard for Sydneysiders, with visits to parks and nature attractions in the City of Sydney skyrocketing on weekends. On Saturday 15 October – which was also the first non-raining weekend day of that month – visits to parks in central Sydney were more than double (103%) of average pre-Covid levels.

David Harding, executive director of Business NSW, is optimistic about the state of Sydney’s CBD, and said the shifting demographic nature of city centres away from office workers, including the conversion of office towers to residential use, should be embraced.

Harding, who co-chaired the Future of the Sydney CBD commission that recommended initiatives such as free public transport, more public furniture and street ping pong tables to the New South Wales government in February, said increased leisure visits predicted by the commission had already emerged.

“There’s been so much hand-wringing and saying we need to get people back to the office, which is such a furphy,” he said. “The words revival and bounceback are slightly disingenuous because the CBD really has changed for ever. What we’re seeing now is not a recovery, it’s a rebalance.”

Harding said that early insights from data gathered over 2022 showed a turnaround in how the Sydney CBD was used over Easter, when free public transport was offered. He said CBD usage was higher than pre-Covid times, and that it appeared to have kickstarted a rapid and immediate uptick in recreational visits to the city centre on weekends and evenings during the week.

“We’re now seeing a demographic coming through the CBD that is dominated by family groups and young people using it for recreation,” he said. “Even seniors are coming back into the city which is great.”

He said that while morning weekday peaks in public transport use were still down, it was now more evenly spread throughout the day and on weekends. However, industrial action in Sydney had dampened use at times.

“We’ve gone from a five-day city to a seven-day city,” Harding said. “The city is not there just for desks anymore.”

Paul Guerra, Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO, said CBD usage during weekday office hours continues to be “sluggish” but that after 5pm on Monday to Thursday, and on weekends, the city is “bustling”.

However, Guerra believes that attracting people back into CBD offices is a key part of the solution in Melbourne.

“It’s now up to private and public sector leaders to encourage staff to return – let’s see the leaders put into place a minimum number of days for staff to come in and publicly announce their intentions,” Guerra said. “Even working in the office three or four days per week will provide a big uplift on where we are now, and the benefits go beyond the in-person collaboration that you can only get by coming in.”

Guerra praised state government hospitality and dining voucher programs, and called for further initiatives such as lower parking fees and public transport fees.

“If we want to propel Melbourne back to the world’s most liveable city, then this [movement data] shows that there is a lot of work to do and provides some direction on areas which need urgent attention.”

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