Getting Around Getting Around: A Pandemic’s Impacts on Transportation

By Doug Bright

Collectively, we’re doing a lot less moving these days. For many, including the UNC Chapel Hill community, the ongoing pandemic means that virtual meetings have replaced our daily commutes. Driven by both personal concern and government action in the form of stay-at-home orders, our non-essential trips have also been slashed in order to reduce interpersonal contact and infection rates. Some services, activities, and goods are essential, and some social level of transportation is needed to simply keep people alive and well. Given our competing priorities, what exactly do the impacts on our transportation patterns and systems look like in these times? And what impact will this global crisis leave on our relationship with movement?

Generally, the short-term story – transportation during the pandemic – has been one of massively reduced demand and volumes. Schools and work – traditionally, the most inflexible sources of travel demand –  have been broadly suspended or transitioned to virtual engagement. Governments have encouraged and ordered people to cut back on non-essential activities, reducing the demand for discretionary and leisure travel as well. Many people have also attempted to reduce the amount of “maintenance” travel by stocking up on (or – for the more extreme – hoarding) groceries and other goods or simply by switching to online shopping for these needs. Some companies – especially for food delivery – have even waived delivery fees in an attempt to maintain business.

As a result of these changes, road congestion has notably decreased. Reports of reduced congestion in the US came early and have been followed with maps confirming the volume drops, even in the world’s most notoriously traffic-laden cities. Google has released “mobility reports” based on mobile location data, detailing the relative volume of travel to different types of locations. Compared to New York, the state at the epicenter of the American crisis, North Carolinians appear to be changing their travel behavior less, including visiting “parks” 5% more than before the crisis began (Orange County, NC trends are more in line with NY state averages). Two public health detriments that come with car traffic – crashes and pollution – have both plummeted. Especially paired with factory closures, reduced car traffic volumes have led to global cities famous for their smog being (temporarily) ridden of their typical dark clouds.

Of course, not everyone relies on a car for every trip; transit ridership has also plunged. Massive drops in ridership (Chicago’s ridership, for instance, was down 77% on the first day of stay-at-home in Illinois, with a larger drop for trains compared to buses) have created gaping holes in budgets that rely on farebox revenue. DC’s Metro has predicted a $50 million monthly deficit. While cuts in service have been made (NYC’s MTA has selectively cut service by about 25%), a relatively high baseline of service is necessary, not only to get transit-reliant essential workers to their jobs but also to allow them to commute without crowding. For example, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has no plans to cut service and has, in fact, adding bus service to busier routes to enable social distancing, as well as increasing the amount of cleaning on vehicles and in facilities. As of April 9th, the CTA added new adjustments, including suspending bus fares to allow rear door boarding (to speed boarding, reduce queuing, and reduce contact with drivers) and skipping pickups when the number of passengers on board is at a newly designated maximum. Auckland, NZ’s transit system has even launched a feature in its mobile app to show occupancy levels of approaching vehicles. Considering the relatively low farebox recovery ratios (the proportion of operating costs accounted for by fares) of US systems, as well as the scale of the ridership decrease, the total financial impacts of temporary fare suspensions could be relatively small, though the reliability of service could suffer as adjustments are made.

Active transportation remains another option during this time, one that may have some strong natural advantages. Outdoor exercise remains on the shortlist of acceptable activities in areas with stay-at-home orders. Given the ability to stay distant from others (in part due to the mode’s relative lack of popularity in the States) as well as a reduced number of cars on the road, biking has gained new advantages. Some cities have responded by offering discounts on bike share. To benefit both cyclists and pedestrians, closure of (parts of) streets to cars is also being considered and advocated for. In addition to being a progressive, efficient move for the use of space, reclaiming space for cars has public health implications. Denser urban areas have sidewalks and mixed use paths that are too narrow and have become too crowded, resulting in shutdowns (e.g. Chicago’s lakefront trail and 606). Without new, safe routes, these shutdowns can cause health and equity issues for commuters who rely on these thoroughfares. Adaptation on our streets also includes measures like the automation of otherwise push-to-walk intersections, a change that put Chapel Hill on the map (literally).

Evidently, the short term impacts on transportation are about as chaotic, varied, and experimental as are to be expected in the context of a global public health emergency. But what might this period suggest for our longer-term relationships getting around?

Depending on how well our enormous ongoing experiment in virtual work and instruction goes, telecommuting could gain new favor. Paired with a potential expansion of the conception of basic human rights to include internet access (and applicable legal, administrative, and programmatic implementation), this change could have an enormous impact on conversations around equity, especially related to mobility. While it won’t make all inaccessible places immediately accessible, it could provide improved massively improved access to important economic levers – jobs and education. A sustained, systemic shift towards telecommuting has other huge implications, especially around the use of the time saved and the implications that may have through different economic lenses (too heady to discuss in this context).

Given new incentives for active transportation (exercise and safety) and the thus-far temporary changes to our cities that have come with it (revoking space previously dedicated to cars), we could potentially see sustained shifts in this arena as well. A significant barrier to active transportation in the US is based on perceptions of the activity, which could be changed with increased exposure through the crisis, which, in the Northern Hemisphere, conveniently happens to be coinciding with warming temperatures. In the other hemisphere, New Zealand’s mega-successful response includes a permanent expansion of space for pedestrians and bicyclists through cheap tactical urbanism methods. Some in the US have called for pouncing on gas tax reform at a time when gas prices are low and fewer people are driving. Without commenting on the likelihood or morality of such a decision, it could potentially complement these temporary natural advantages for active transportation.

On the note of finances, the potential long-term silver lining for transit coming out of this crisis looks quite similar to that of healthcare or other safety net structures. While transit systems are suffering in a way they haven’t since the initial development of car culture (technology, subsidies, and all), their current suffering may spur reorganization that protects them in the long run. The crisis has highlighted the permanence of the “essential worker” (healthcare, groceries, transportation operators, etc.) who needs to get to his or her job regardless of the level of crisis. As long as we have essential workers in cities, we will need public transit (or some other major subsidy for their transportation). Failing this potential progress, transit systems will be better equipped – at least from operations and know-how perspectives, if not financially – to deal with a crisis of this sort in the future. The current need is triggering investments – like Chicago’s move of farecard readers to the rear of buses – the benefits of which will last long after the pandemic.

Finally, we can consider long-term impacts on urban density, a major input for understanding transportation patterns. Density is a rallying cry of urbanists, but given the emphasis on remaining physically distanced, it would be understandable to react adversely to the idea of living close to others. Important to acknowledge are the pandemic successes of mega dense places like Hong Kong and Singapore, but also some major cultural and political differences that could prevent similar types of actions in the US. Permanent adjustments that make us safer (significant shifts towards telecommuting, institutional and technological changes aimed at reducing interpersonal interaction, etc.) may make our cities less healthy from a social perspective, similar to the risk presented by other disruptors like automated vehicles. A more city-friendly solution likely lies in cultural shifts and the emergency protocols driven by the current crisis. Planners should act quickly to leverage the current opportunity to make lasting changes with the potential to make our urban places more livable – pandemic or not.

Feature Image: A temporary street closure in Oakland provides a shocking peek into a less car-focused alternative future for urban streets. The New York Times

About the Author: Doug Bright is a first-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in transportation. He’s a proud Chicagoan, enjoys taking the streets by two wheels, and indulges in improvisational cooking. He likes thinking and talking about education, design, and sustainability. He also likes jokes. Doug received his undergraduate degree in Social Studies from Harvard College.