Traffic Lab: What Happens to Traffic After Quarantine?
We look at the challenges facing our transportation system and the opportunities to rethink it completely.
Images of empty streets came to characterize quarantine, but it won’t stay that way forever. As cities reopen, traffic is rebounding quickly and may even exceed pre-lockdown levels. We spoke with two experts to find out what to expect from traffic after quarantine — and what we can do about it.
More cars = more traffic (it’s science)
Dan Work is a professor at Vanderbilt University studying the role of data in making transportation more efficient. He recently co-authored a study called The Rebound: How COVID-19 Could Lead to Worse Traffic. Cue ominous music.
Using U.S. Census Bureau data, his team looked at how many people were using transit and how many were carpooling, then asked: What would happen if this group switched to commuting alone in a car, as many are predicting?
“In Boston, a 10% shift from transit and carpool to single occupancy vehicles would add an extra 33 minutes to the average commute.”
Spoiler alert: travel times would go up. A lot. In Boston, for example, a 10% shift from transit and carpool to single occupancy vehicles would add an extra 33 minutes to the average commute.
“The concern I have is that after COVID-19 is hopefully a distant memory, we end up in a situation where our commute patterns have fundamentally changed,” says Work. “And if the infrastructure can’t support those changes, then we could be in for a rough ride for commutes in the future.”
But there’s a silver lining. When it comes to our daily commute, “we actually have an opportunity to change our future because right now, we’re all paying attention,” Work says.
A year ago, he explains, it would’ve been a lot harder to do something “radical,” like shut down a roadway for biking and walking. But now, people are a lot more open to it, and he’s optimistic that some of these interventions will stick around.
The road less traveled
Erick Guerra is an assistant professor in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies transportation planning and the relationship between land use, car ownership, and driving rates.
The way he sees it, an economic downturn could mean less driving over the long haul, which would hurt transit agencies and state DOTs trying to keep up with transportation infrastructure. But, like Work, he sees a big opportunity to rethink our approach to moving around — for the better.
“I think a lot of the best innovations are actually kind of old, and they’re just in the way that we implement them,” says Guerra.
For starters, he’s a fan of shifting funding from how we get from A to B to simply improving A and B and cutting down on the need for so much travel.
“Moving around tends to come at a cost,” he says. “But we can shift the focus more on place and less on mobility. If you think about the value of the land that the road is on, could that be used for better things in the public interest?”
One example he gives is a trend that’s picked up during the shutdown: blocking off downtown areas to make them more friendly for walking, less crowded with cars. For Guerra, that’s a change worth keeping.
“At the end of the day, we travel to do something other than traveling,” he says.
A massive experiment in remote work
Guerra and Work both agree that at the very least, the switch to working from home should thin out traffic at peak travel times.
Even a small shift to remote work makes a big difference in traffic. In Work’s study, for example, 25% more single occupancy vehicles in New York City would tack on an extra 37 minutes of travel time. To get it back to the baseline, you only need about 14% of people to work from home (or everybody could spend four days each month working from home). That’s a pretty small behavior change to make a big dent in traffic.
When the time arrives, companies can play a big role in whether traffic goes up or down, according to Work. If they want to help the roads stay a little more clear, they should think about keeping remote work around and incentivizing employees to resume their relationships with carpooling and public transit.
“I think if everybody does their part, we will see an improvement in traffic,” he says.