For those who found themselves out on the roads during the height of the shelter-in-place orders, the lack of traffic congestion was one of the few bright spots during an otherwise grim period. Now that Chicago has entered phase 4 and people are returning to work, this is about to change.
Workers are once again hitting the road—and they’ve got company. Many who in the past relied on public transit to get to where they need to go are now opting to drive instead, trading the headache of traffic for the relative safety of a single-occupant vehicle. But an artificial increase in traffic may be short lived.
“There are opposing factors at play,” said Veronica Siranosian, vice president, digital innovation at AECOM. “Some people might decide to switch modes from transit to driving, which would increase highway usage, but there’s also a dampening effect going on where some trips are being eliminated altogether.”
Many companies will extend their work-from-home experiment, which will keep some employees off the road. Others have opted to introduce shift work to limit the densities of their office space—a tactic that will also spread out auto traffic and cut down on congestion during morning and evening commutes.
These are short-term considerations, however, and infrastructure is an inherently long-term endeavor. Taking the long view, the pandemic may present opportunities for improvement within all of our transit and traffic infrastructures.
A return to transit
The switch from mass transit to car driving is unrealistic and unsustainable for most commuters, even if riders are leery of sharing the same air and confined space as others.
“What ultimately will get us back on transit is a sense of necessity,” said Denise Casalino, P.E. executive vice president, national cities manager at AECOM. “I don’t think anybody could envision a world where people are back in their cars as much as they are on public transportation because it just won’t work.”
AECOM has run a number of scenarios through a proprietary modeling software, taking into account variables presented by the pandemic. Though many projections do show highway usage rising above pre-pandemic levels in the short term, these increases should quickly taper off and transit ridership will recover.
“Assuming that most businesses and schools reopen by September and child care is available, we see bus and rail usage approaching almost pre-pandemic levels by early next year,” said Siranosian.
The fastest way to get people back on buses and trains is improved communication. For example, capacity has been restricted to enforce physical distancing, so service providers need to effectively broadcast the real-time densities of particular routes to their riders.
Improved cleanliness and sanitization are important to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but they are of little use without expressing this to riders. One way that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is trying to make riders feel more comfortable is by distributing free Travel Healthy kits that containing hand sanitizer, a reusable cloth mask and healthy riding brochures.
Molding hardship into progress
There are a number of social goods that can be improved due to lessons learned from the pandemic. We know, for example, that an increase in highway traffic is unsustainable not just for economic reasons but environmental ones as well. Now is the time to reconfigure our systems so that we can decrease the levels of carbon-trapping emissions while simultaneously improving commuters’ experiences.
“We keep talking about flattening the curve of COVID-19 so that there isn’t a surge that we can’t handle,” said Casalino. “Perhaps in the new world we flatten the transit curve. Right now, everybody is working the same hours, which is why we have really harsh commuting times.”
Some transit systems already use some form of touchless fare payment system. Expanding these now will reduce the instances whereby a rider must physically interact with a bus or train, and thus slow the spread of the virus. In the long term, it will also speed up onboarding and travel times, encouraging higher ridership.
Similarly, there are existing technologies that use anonymized cell phone data to understand station densities. Transit systems have begun integrating that information with transit apps to tell people how crowded a particular station may be as a prophylactic measure during the pandemic. In the long term, this information can also be used to improve service.
One lesson that we’ve all learned from the pandemic is who constitutes an “essential worker.” Grocery story employees, for example, have proven integral during this time, and yet they have far less flexibility in terms of how they travel to and from their job, compared to white collar workers. Now is a great time to step back and address how transit can better serve all segments of society.
People of color, historically, have seen less infrastructure improvements in their neighborhoods. There is already hope on the horizon along this front. The CTA has proposed an extension of the Red Line south to 130th Street. This would bring rapid transit to underserved communities in Roseland and West Pullman.
“My hope is that we take this moment to recognize what could have been done better in our transit systems and when we look to the future, we don’t go back to what we had before, but we go beyond to something better,” Siranosian said.