Traffic

An IBM report released earlier this month revealed some significant changes in consumer sentiment and public willingness to use certain mobility methods as a result of COVID-19. The study polled more than 25,000 adults during the month of April. Of the respondents that regularly used buses, subways, or trains: 20 percent said they no longer would utilize those options; an additional 28 percent said they would use public transportation less often. 17 percent of people surveyed said they will use their personal vehicle more; 25 percent of that 17 percent said it will be their exclusive method of transportation going forward.

Consumer perception of public transportation and the ways we move has shifted dramatically in just three short months. These results indicate that a significant number of U.S. consumers intend to drastically change the ways they travel in the aftermath of COVID-19. If these sentiments remain in place in the coming years, the decrease in public transportation ridership would mean decreased fee collections, which can lead to several options for cities to fund public transportation, including (1) an increase in ridership fees, (2) an increase in general tax revenue devoted to public transportation, or (3) a decrease in service offerings. All of these options are undesirable, especially in cities where private vehicle ownership is low, and many workers may have no option other than public transportation. The cities with the largest annual ridership numbers for subway or metro are New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

City

Annual Metro/ Subway ridership (2019)

Population
(2018 Estimates)

Percent of Households without a vehicle (2016)

New York, NY

2,274 Million

8,398,748

54.4%

Washington, D.C.

237 Million

702,455

37.3%

Chicago

218 Million

2,705,994

27.5%

Boston

152 Million

694,583

33.8%

San Francisco

123 Million

883,305

29.9%

Removing 20 percent of public transportation riders completely and decreasing the usage of nearly 30 percent more would be financially catastrophic for any city transit authority. In 2019, the New York MTA brought in nearly $17 Billion. The current decrease in ridership (down 74 percent) has already required the MTA to seek billions in aid from the federal government and led to a first-ever decrease in working hours to sanitize trains overnight. A sustained decrease of more than 30 percent of rides per year would require a systemic overhaul of the metro system or some other drastic measures.

While some respondents indicated they will use their personal vehicles more, it is clear that in cities where public transportation is most utilized, many people do not have access to a personal vehicle. This will place a difficult decision on many underserved and minority communities: return to using public transportation and face an elevated risk of potential infection, struggle to find a job closer to home to avoid transportation, or save for a personal vehicle to avoid public transportation. Owning a vehicle in major cities can be prohibitively expensive for low-income households, and affordable parking can be nearly impossible to find. As transit authorities raise prices to compensate for lost riders, more riders may depart as the cost of ridership becomes too high for their budget. This could lead to a death spiral for public transportation. These systems simply cannot sustain 90 percent ridership decreases.

The same IBM survey also found that the decision to buy a personal vehicle after COVID-19 was “greatly” influenced by a constraint on their personal finances for more than 33 percent of respondents. 25 percent said they would hold off on buying a vehicle for more than 6 months. So for many people who wish to stop using public transportation, there is no safe and affordable option immediately available. Some may point to rideshare services as a safer alternative to the cramped quarters of public transportation. But according to the survey, of the respondents who used rideshare apps and services already, more than 50 percent said they would use the services less, or stop entirely. Uber and Lyft are going to see an incredible drop off in ridership; Uber and Lyft both halted their carpooling services in March. Uber trips were already down 70 percent in some cities in March. These numbers are sure to increase, and the companies will recover financially due to the increase in demand for UberEats during this crisis. However, the surge in ridership seen in recent years will take many years to reach 2019 peaks.

Finally, the IBM survey also asked about working from home, a topic I wrote about at the end of March.  Around 40 percent of respondents indicated they feel strongly that their employer should provide employees the option to opt-in to remote working from home going forward. 75 percent indicated they would like to continue working from home at least occasionally, and more than 50 percent indicated they would like working from home to be their primary work method. Perhaps companies will heed the desires of their employees. It is unlikely that many companies will offer the “work from home, forever” option that Twitter and Facebook have provided. But almost certainly we will see an increase in the ability of employees to work from home, now that their ability to do so has been demonstrated. Especially in cities like New York and San Francisco where the annual cost of office space is more than $13,000 per employee. If more tech companies follow Facebook’s lead and allow many employees to work remotely forever, we may even see housing prices start to decrease in some select areas and a further decrease in public transportation ridership in cities like San Francisco.

Mobility is going to change immensely once this crisis is over, whenever that may be. Public transportation must be overhauled in its current processes and operations if it hopes to regain public confidence and achieve ridership numbers anywhere near 2019 levels during the next decade.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and our memories of the “before time” feel ever more distant, some have begun to wonder how this crisis and its aftermath could change how and where people live. Will people abandon expensive and dense major cities for smaller cities, suburbs or even small towns? On the one hand, I’ll admit that living in a small city like Ann Arbor has made weathering the lock down rather easy, which could lead credence to these ideas. Personally, I’ve had no issues finding supplies, or taking a walk without running into too many other people (though my apartment building’s shared laundry rooms are now a fraught location). Of course, Ann Arbor, a wealthy, educated college town with excellent access to medical care has a lot of resources other cities do not, so it may not be the best example.

Alternatively, there are those who argue our cities won’t actually change that much post-COVID-19, and there are even ways that the outbreak could make cities better (with the proper investment). Cities have survived disease outbreaks for millennia, and given that so much of our economy, culture, and infrastructure is built around cities it would be hard to seismically shift to some other model of living. Yet the economic upheaval that the pandemic has ushered in will no doubt influence where and how people live, and could last a good deal longer than the disease itself.

So what changes are well already seeing in cities, and what could that indicate about where we’re heading? In a number of cities, including New York, Seattle, and Oakland, are closing streets to open up more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Streets could also be closed to provide more outdoor space for restaurants, to help them reopen while preserving some measure of social distancing. New Zealand has gone as far as to make such street alterations national policy. Cities and towns in that nation are able to apply for funding to immediately expand sidewalks and modify streets, with the national government covering 90% of the cost. Some suggest these closures and modifications should be permanent – that we should take this opportunity to create more walkable and bikeable cities now, when we have the chance. In many ways these modified streets are similar to proposals for automated vehicle (“AV”) dominated cities. Supporters believe that wide adoption and deployment of AVs would mean more streets could have one lane of traffic in each direction, with the extra space turned over to alternative uses. The current demands of social distancing dovetail with those ideas – could cities use the current crisis to prepare themselves for an autonomous future? Given the difficulty of building new infrastructure, it may not be a bad idea to get ahead of the curve.

As noted by Phillip in a post earlier in the crisis, another effect of the global lockdown has been improved environmental conditions in cities around the globe. In India, for example, where cities have significant pollution problems, massive reductions in travel have led to clear skies. For the first time, we are seeing clear examples of what cleaner energy production could bring (pun intended). Such improvements could lead residents to demand continued reductions in emissions even after this crisis passes. These and other changes made to cities in the short term to cope with lockdowns and social distancing could dictate the future of urban design, but only if governments and citizens are willing to adopt them and protect them from being undone once the crisis passes.

P.S. Those of you who are interested in buying a bike to help navigate the new socially-distanced world may run into an issue – just like masks, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper, bikes are now becoming a scarce resource in some places.

It feels like much longer than two months ago that I first wrote about the coronavirus, Covid-19. At the time of my first blog post on the subject, the world had just witnessed China quarantine more than 50 million people in four weeks. The United States is now under conditions that significantly exceed that number. As of March 26th, more than 20 U.S. states have imposed either statewide orders, or partial orders, for residents to stay at home and shelter in place. Currently, more than 196 million citizens are being urged to stay at home. Social Distancing, Zoom, and Flatten the Curve have become household names and phrases overnight. As I write this, millions of citizens are entering their second or third week of working from home.

As the United States reckons with this outbreak’s severity and we learn to live at a distance, it is crucial to reflect on the unintended secondary effects that have become apparent from en masse “work from home” (“WFH”). Perhaps we can learn something. Perhaps it is just refreshing to note them. Perhaps it could provide inspiration for solutions to many problems we are already facing or will one day face.

Traffic Reductions

Traffic in various cities across the world has decreased dramatically. With millions of people working from home for the foreseeable future, there are fewer cars on the road during traditional rush hour peaks. Traffic in Chicago is moving as much as 60% faster; traffic in Los Angeles is moving 35% more quickly than usual.  8am LA rush hour traffic was flowing around 60 miles per hour, while it typically dips down to 30 mph. Roughly the same increase in speed was measured during the evening commute hour.

Pollution Reduction

A decrease in rush hour traffic was an easily predicted effect of mass-quarantining. One unintended side effect is the sharp decrease in pollution over major cities. There has been a severe downturn in Nitrogen Dioxide (“NO2“) — a significant pollutant released from the burning of fossil fuels — over Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. The same significant drop in NO2 has been seen over China around Wuhan, Shanghai, and Beijing.

This decrease in pollution and an increase in traffic speeds reflect the anticipated benefits of autonomous vehicles. One of the benefits of AVs is the decrease in emissions that come from daily commutes. Most autonomous vehicle manufacturers and testers use electric vehicles because the electrical power the advanced computer systems draw exceeds the capacity of most car batteries. An increase in electric vehicles on the roads will decrease fossil fuels being burned while driving, which would likely lead to a reduction in pollutants (like NO2) over concentrated areas over roadways.

Another benefit of AVs is the decrease in traffic time. Vehicles the communicate with other vehicles (“V2V”) or that communicate with infrastructure (“V2I”) will, over time, allow for fewer slowdowns and higher average driving speeds. Because vehicles can communicate when they are slowing down, speeding up, turning, exiting, etc. the flow of highway traffic will become smoother as fewer interruptions cause human drivers to hit the breaks or come to a standstill. AVs that platoon in synchronization can also increase traffic speeds.

One of the much-touted benefits of autonomous vehicles is the increased productivity that a driver can experience by freeing up their attention and hands from needing to drive and monitor their vehicle. Although not to the same scale, faster traffic speeds from increased WFH translates into less time wasted on a commute and more time with family and at work. The same is true of WFH; my daily commute has changed from a 15-minute walk to the law school to a 15-second walk from the kitchen up to my desk. 

One metric I am interested in seeing after the Covid-19 social distancing and en masse WFH is worker productivity while working from home. If workers are similarly (or more) productive when working from home, we could see an uptick in companies allowing employees to WFH weekly, or even on an unlimited basis (subject to approval of some sort). Similarly, if some of the benefits that AVs seek to bring — decreased traffic, reduced pollution, increased productivity — can be achieved through en masse WFH, should AV proponents, and others interested in these benefits, be advocating for more WFH in other contexts? Companies could even use WFH to advertise their “green” efforts, by touting the number of driven miles and pollutants they eliminate annually by requiring employees to WFH periodically.

If we anticipate future events like Covid-19, where social distancing becomes crucial, keeping WFH skills sharp may become a necessity. Allowing or requiring workers to stay home one or more days per week could be a method to keep those skills sharp: being productive at home, efficient communication online, and keeping in contact with employees and supervisors. As this crisis continues to unfold, it is essential to remember that this round of social distancing will not last forever. As a country, we will emerge from this crisis changed. How we change is interesting to project, but it is similarly essential to aid in preventing future problems and adapting future solutions.

No matter how you get to work, chances are you’ve spent at least a handful of hours frustrated by the commute. At some point, construction, poor weather, or simply congested roadways have taken valuable hours from all of our days. Given the constant annoyance of bad traffic, it is unsurprising that people get excited about any technology that may reduce the problem. Such was at least part of the hope for ridesharing technologies like Uber and Lyft.

To date, that hope has been at least premature, if not misplaced entirely. Recent studies have shown that the introduction of Uber and Lyft to a city actually increases traffic. A study by transportation analyst Bruce Schaller found that popular ridesharing apps were responsible for 51% of the increase in traffic in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016. Results in other major metro areas were similar.

The increased traffic appears to be primarily attributable to two things. First, rideshare drivers spend around 40% of their road time between passengers, merely taking up space on the road without moving customers where they want to go. Second, Schaller’s research suggests that the convenience of ridesharing has increased the total number of trips taken. He finds that 60% of trips taken with rideshare apps replace trips for which people would have either taken public transit, biked, walked, or simply not made the trip. Uber and Lyft dispute some of Schaller’s methods, arguing that he does not adequately account for factors like increased tourism and freight delivery as causes of increased congestion.

Even if some of the companies’ criticisms are valid, the challenges of passenger-less rideshare vehicles and rideshare trips replacing non-car travel are almost certainly both real. It is possible that, as Uber, Lyft, and others collect more data about patterns of mobility, they will be able to effectively limit the amount of time their cars are on the road with no passengers. By contrast, increased traffic due to rideshare replacement of non-car travel will not be abated by the companies alone. Their incentives align with reducing the amount of time drivers have no passenger in the car, but not with ceding a share of their market to public transit or other modes of transportation.

The challenge of rideshare trips replacing non-car travel will require affirmative government action to overcome. Broadly, cities may take one of two paths, or a combination of both. First, they can design their infrastructure and public transit systems in such a way as to make walking or public transportation a more attractive option for the individual consumer than a solo car trip. Second, they may choose to limit the number of rideshare vehicles allowed on the road. Such a program would be similar to the grant of a set number of taxi medallions. Some cities, such as Chicago, have begun charging a tax on Uber and Lyft rides specifically to help fund improved public transportation. Such a scheme may enable the city to keep its other transit options competitive with rideshare and reduce overall traffic congestion.

To date, the growth of Uber and Lyft present a cautionary tale for tech optimists. On one hand, the growth of these companies has presented riders with a convenient way to travel, and has enabled some people to forgo owning their own car. However, there is evidence that the explosion of vehicles on the road has dramatically increased traffic congestion in the nation’s largest cities. While some of the traffic problems may be solved as the companies continue to collect data, it will likely take affirmative action by local governments to make other transportation options more compelling and abate the worst of the traffic problem.