Rush hour looks a little different these days as work-from-home has been the new norm for the past year. Some companies say they will allow employees to work at home permanently, at least part of the week.
With these dreams of 9-5ers becoming a reality, the effects are wide-ranging. Researchers and government at all levels are still trying to figure out the impact and update plans for the future.
THERE REALLY IS LESS TRAFFIC
You're not just traveling at off-hours. Your mind isn't playing tricks on you. Data supports that, so far, rush hour traffic is a thing of the past. The TomTom Traffic Index found a decrease in traffic congestion in 2020 in 387 of the 416 cities it tracks. Martin Morzynski of StreetLight Data notes a decline "during the morning rush hour," but increased traffic throughout the day.
Many factors point towards the lighter commute we are currently enjoying. However, there is still a chance you could run into a bottleneck - just maybe at a different time or place. While drivers may be going to an office building fewer times a week, there are more delivery vehicles on the road. Also, as employees are working from home, there is a higher likelihood of midday trips.
Another factor that could increase traffic is the trend away from rideshare and public transport. These modes of transportation were shunned as commuters adopted social distancing protocols amid the pandemic. In Chicago, bus and rail ridership fell. Pre-pandemic there were "about 1.5 million riders on an average weekday", and that dropped down "to about 250,000 or 300,000," during the pandemic, said Brian Steele, a spokesman for the Chicago Transit Authority.
Since China recovered the most since it was the first hot spot for COVID-19, other countries have watched to predict what might occur in their hometown. Stephan Wöllenstein, chief executive of Volkswagen Group China, reports "interest from a new...customer, those keen to own a...vehicle to escape the risks of infection on public transport." Wöllenstein noted that many are first-time car buyers.
TRAFFIC PATTERNS CHANGED
It might not be just when the cars are on the roads that change, but the streets themselves. The Wall Street Journal reports that while road space was already being taken from cars and given back to pedestrians, the pandemic has hastened these efforts.
The streetscapes themselves are changing from more lanes for bikes and buses to expanded outdoor restaurant dining. Ann Shikany, state and federal policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that "there is strong support for open streets. Recovery should not mean going back to the way things were before; we can make our cities better."
While growth in travel can be expected to continue, what the country finally ends up with as the new normal is still the thing of researchers' simulators. Nick Cohn, TomTom's senior traffic expert, said, "I think we're going to see a lot of ups and downs before we're really getting back to any normal driving patterns and traffic activity levels."
According to Tim Lomax, a research fellow at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, COVID-19 setbacks can't be excuses for canceling infrastructure projects if cities will be ready for new driving norms. Lomax says, "the pandemic bought [governments] much-needed time." Investments are still needed in highways and transit, but "what we are seeing is sort of a congestion reset to the point where the average metro area has bought itself five…" or ten years of growth.