Researchers look at the transportation future as the country reopens

By Robbie Webber

As the economy recovers from COVID-19, how can we emerge with a better, stronger, and more resilient transportation system? Three recent reports analyzing the impact of the pandemic on transportation and personal attitudes toward transportation may offer some clues.

Vanderbilt University researchers modeled how travel time could change in metro areas if a quarter, half, or three-quarters of current transit users instead began driving when they return to work. With fewer passengers, less fair revenue, stressed city budgets, and fears of close contact, many transit systems have cut back service. If current transit users instead drive, metro areas that heavily rely on transit and do not have excess road capacity—especially San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York—could see significant increases in travel time. Other metro areas will see smaller changes in travel time because they have excess road capacity and can absorb additional drivers.

An IBM survey of 25,000 adults in April has bad news for public transit. The survey was conducted to understand how the pandemic has affected attitudes on a number of issues, including transportation preferences. Findings among current transit users included:

  • More than 20 percent of respondents now said they no longer would use transit.
  • An additional 28 percent said they will likely use public transportation less often.
  • Over half who used rideshare apps said they would do so less frequently or stop using the services entirely. Taxis seem to be a bit more trusted, with only 24 percent saying they would stop using that option.
  • Many car-free respondents reported that they would like to purchase a car but lacked the financial resources or confidence in the economy to do so.

Finally, a Brookings Institute report examined which metro areas had the largest drop in VMT, the characteristics of those metro areas, and how to keep VMT down after the economy revives. In order to emerge with a better transportation system, Brookings suggests:

  • Employers can allow or even encourage more telework to reduce peak hour travel demands. Although this option has been suggested as a transportation demand management strategy for many years, the current pandemic has been a forced test of how well it can work.
  • Road pricing and VMT fees to better manage existing capacity, lower injuries and fatalities, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This disruption could be an opportunity to change both transportation policy and the expectations of the public.
  • Cities and states create adequate space for walking, biking, and transit. In order to allow appropriate social distancing for those using active transportation, many cities have reallocated roadway and public spaces. Some of these changes may continue. Certainly, improving comfort, safety, and speed for those not driving can help ease congestion for those still using the roads.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.