On the roads again: Transit after COVID-19
Monday, April 19, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic kept us indoors for nearly a year. Many workplaces switched to telecommuting, schools tried online learning, and theaters, parks, and beaches stood empty while restaurants had to survive on takeout-only transactions. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) dropped by 16.3% nationwide in July 2020. Now, with vaccination rates growing entire states have begun lifting emergency measures.
As social distancing and mask mandates become a thing of the past, a whole world of cooped-up people will burst back out onto the streets. However, various factors will influence just how transit looks in the post-coronavirus world, and what this means in terms of cars on the road and subsequent changes to traffic and parking conditions.
Not all at once
Many companies that switched to remote-only workforces in 2020 may continue to allow full-time telecommuting or a hybrid schedule where office attendance is only mandatory a few days each week. Currently, 77% of office employees are working from home at least one day per week, with 55% expected to keep doing so after the pandemic. This means many workers will no longer be part of the daily commute.
Likewise, schools are opening slowly, so fewer parents will be taking their children to school in the immediate aftermath of COVID. It may well be that traffic ramps up as the pandemic fades, though whether it reaches past levels is difficult to predict.
It is reasonable to anticipate some sort of post-COVID surge, especially compared to the leisurely, even lonely drives we’ve grown used to during the pandemic. People are eager to get out and experience the world once more, and customer-starved businesses like retailers, restaurants, and movie theaters will roll out advertising and incentives to get people into their locations. Desperate for stimulation not found at home, people will be eager to get out, and this may lead to massive traffic surges, especially on weekends and holidays.
Public transit woes and urban upheaval
Of special concern is the state of public transit, which took a major hit during the pandemic as demand dropped about 73% across the country. Even assuming a bump in post-COVID riders, many commuters may opt to use personal vehicles rather than risk an unlikely exposure to the virus. This will mean more drivers on the road and could even cause urban transport systems to shut down for lack of funding. This of course would force more people into cars, creating a vicious cycle that will further congest the roads and leave those who cannot afford a car trapped and unable to work.
The most profound and unpredictable effects will be felt in urban areas. Cities host the largest number of office workers, who will be spending less time on the roads. Yet many of these telecommuters and remote workers reacted to COVID by seeking new homes in tranquil small towns.
With cities being home to the majority of public transit programs, and city dwellers leaving resulting in further lack of funding, the spike in personal vehicle commuting will be remarkable. Depending what percentage of public transit users switch to cars, the rise in traffic may increase travel times by hundreds of thousands of hours in some cities.
Challenges and opportunities
A post-COVID traffic surge is almost guaranteed and may result in unexpected gridlock. Governments will need to invest in subsidizing public transit services and to encourage people to use public methods of commuting to alleviate strain on the roadways. But these challenges have presented the opportunity to rethink parking in our cities.
Neighborhoods with less pressure to accommodate cars thanks to a telecommuting workforce could convert parking spaces into bicycle lanes or patio space for restaurants, quick food pickups, and curbside activities, making those areas cleaner, more vibrant, and attractive to young people. To accommodate any other demand for parking, businesses that have switched to telecommuting could convert their unused parking spaces into public lots, high-rise parking lots could rent spaces to the city and use other spaces for pop-up businesses.
Necessity really is the mother of invention, and these changing conditions mean governments must seize the chance to implement smarter policies to improve on long-standing traffic, congestion, and parking issues. Cities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Boston have already banned cars from certain stretches of road to make areas more welcoming for foot traffic, and redesigned streets have slowed automobiles for safety. With more of the same ingenuity, we could unveil a post-COVID status quo that’s smarter and healthier than before.
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