The global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the landscape of daily life, including how we choose to travel. Since early 2020, public behaviors and mindsets around transportation have drastically transformed. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of a reliable and resilient transportation network, and we have also seen the crucial role transportation plays in the supply chain and the distribution of essential goods and services. Although we are approaching the three-year anniversary of the pandemic’s onset, its consequences are far from over and continue to impact communities across the globe.
As we collaborate for a holistic, equitable recovery from the pandemic and establish a new normal, transportation remains critical to the future of planning and policy-making for safe, healthy and equitable communities. Before we can make decisions about how transportation might need to transform in a post-pandemic era, however, we must understand the trends and insights into our transportation network revealed over the last three years.
THE HEIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC: 2020 TO EARLY 2021
As COVID-19 began to spread rapidly throughout the population, jurisdictions across the nation implemented policies to encourage those who could stay home to do so and discourage other behaviors that were thought to facilitate the spread of the virus. The result? Transportation systems of all sizes and modes came to a complete standstill within just a handful of weeks. Transit agencies drastically reduced their service, transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft saw an abrupt drop-off in ride requests and normally congested streets and highways sat eerily empty. As demand for traditional auto-centric travel dropped off, communities saw growth in the number of people walking, biking and rolling for recreation and to reach basic nearby amenities and services. Key trends observed during the immediate aftermath of the pandemic’s onset include:
- Reductions in public transit use: From a supply standpoint, transit agencies reduced service and implemented safety measures such as capacity limits, reducing the availability of transit service to riders who needed it. On the demand side, many transit riders who could afford to do so also avoided using public transit due to concerns about the risk of transmission of the virus. This led to a decline in ridership and revenue for public transit systems. During the spring and summer of 2020, nearly every major transit system in the country experienced substantial ridership losses, with rail and express transit services losing around 70-95% of ridership and local bus services losing 30-40% of ridership.
- Short-lived reductions in private vehicle use: With thousands more people working from home and avoiding non-essential travel, streets and highways across the nation saw significantly less vehicle traffic while the most restrictive pandemic regulations were in effect. In many cities, the reduction in traffic congestion led to near-immediate, observable improvements in air quality. While many businesses continued to offer remote work options and health-related restrictions remained in place, vehicle usage began to surge again just a few months after the pandemic’s onset, alongside a dangerous rise in reckless driving behaviors. In 2020, the number of traffic fatalities nationwide increased nearly 7% from 2019 and was the first increase in traffic fatalities since 2016, reversing four years of incremental reductions in fatalities.
- Increases in active transportation: The combination of Safer-At-Home orders and (initially) emptier streets inspired many individuals to increase their use of active transportation modes, such as walking, biking and rolling. This trend was particularly pronounced in areas with existing active transportation infrastructure, but even communities without sidewalks or bike lanes experienced similar trends, inspiring many communities to designate “Slow Streets” or implement other restrictions to reduce vehicle flows on local streets.
BEGINNING THE ROAD TO RECOVERY: MID-2021 TO 2022
As the landscape around the COVID-19 pandemic continued to transform, so did travel behaviors and impacts on the transportation network. Commuters began to return to the roadways in mid-2021 as COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to most members of the public and employers began to resume in-person operations. Although most modes of transportation have experienced a return to pre-pandemic capacity (or thereabouts), the effects of the pandemic continue to linger. The most critical continuing trends include:
- Transformations to public transit: Ridership trends are looking up for the public transit industry: according to the American Public Transportation Association, transit agencies have recovered 69-78% of their pre-pandemic ridership on average. However, transit agencies must still navigate the challenge of public perception of safety and cleanliness on public transit vehicles (despite virtually every public transit provider implementing strict cleaning and disinfecting protocols throughout the pandemic and beyond). On the supply side, the industry faces an ever-changing landscape of hurdles and opportunities. As workforce challenges permeate the economy, transit agencies are struggling to find and hire enough operators to sustain pre-pandemic levels of transit service. Many agencies also implemented fare-free service during the pandemic in an effort to ensure service for essential workers, and those agencies are now grappling with whether to permanently extend fare-free service or return to charging passengers for trips.
- The rise of telecommuting: The widespread adoption of virtual collaboration practices and remote work software has made it easier than ever for employees to work remotely. As employees and job seekers increasingly pursue professional opportunities with telecommuting options and more flexible work arrangements, employers are rising to meet this demand. Although vehicle traffic has long since returned to pre-pandemic levels, the widespread popularization of telecommuting may offer transportation planners a tool to help address traffic congestion, particularly during peak congestion hours, and support the reduction of vehicle miles traveled and transportation-related emissions overall.
- Traffic fatalities continue to increase: Alongside the surge in vehicle traffic and growth in active and recreational transportation, traffic fatalities have also continued to increase. In fact, 2021 was the most deadly year for traffic fatalities in nearly two decades, reaching the highest national total of fatal collisions since 2005. This has important implications for accessibility and equity, especially considering that people of color, children and older adults are disproportionately killed in traffic collisions. Particularly for households without access to a vehicle, the stakes of prioritizing safe, multimodal transportation have never been higher.
LOOKING AHEAD: 2023 AND BEYOND
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on transportation and travel patterns, altering not only the way people travel but also the challenges they face while doing so. It is likely that many of these challenges will continue throughout recovery from the pandemic, even as vaccination rates increase and restrictions are lifted. The complexity and depth of the pandemic’s impacts on transportation will not be fully understood for years to come, but it is essential to recognize the importance of the decisions that will be made in the coming months and years. The planning and policy efforts we undertake now will directly shape the post-pandemic transportation landscape.
Want to Learn More?
Our March 2023 Centralina Learns session titled “Transportation in a Post-Pandemic World” discussed the steps we can take to ensure the path to recovery leads to safe, healthy and equitable transportation for all. You can access the full recorded webinar here.