Suppressed traffic makes travel easier for emergency vehicles and supplies and offers long-term benefits, too.
By Bill Eisele
America’s answer to our public health crisis is, naturally, all about preserving human life. Working from home will surely help limit the spread of the coronavirus and save many lives. But this new workday normal is serving another useful but unspoken purpose, in ways that don’t directly relate to disease management.
When we stay at home, our cars and trucks stay at home, too, lightening the demand on our roadway networks. The effects of that are both noticeable and timely.
- Crucial shipments of medical supplies, groceries and other necessities are enjoying a more unobstructed path to their destinations.
- First responders can more quickly transport patients to hospitals, a big assist for increasingly strained ranks of nurses and doctors who can use all the help they can get.
- We’re using a lot less fuel at a time when an oil price war may threaten energy production and supplies worldwide.
- We’re reducing tailpipe emissions, making the air more safely breathable at a time when breathing is a bigger burden for those who are struck by COVID-19 (or other respiratory ailments).
Working from home isn’t new, of course. Federal employees, for instance, have had the telework option for years, and executive branch directives have instructed federal agencies to maximize that practice during the pandemic.
In the past, telework has occasionally provided a way for people to fulfill job obligations while caring for sick children. What it now provides is a way to do our jobs and help keep a country from getting sicker. So, the motivation behind our new work-life normal is all about public health, obviously, and not one born of traffic conditions, which cost the U.S. nearly $180 billion in 2017. Still, the ancillary mobility effect of a robust work-at-home model is undeniable, and we should reaffirm our commitment to that model once we emerge from this pandemic.
After all, we’re certainly developing the skill and capacity for working from home, albeit without much choice in the matter. All we have to do next is apply that competence as a matter of public policy and business and personal routine — even in the absence of a national emergency to mandate it. And with a few months (possibly more) to practice this new normal, we’re bound to get pretty good at it. We should put that newfound capability to practical use when this storm passes.
Energies directed at the COVID-19 outbreak are focused on the most urgent considerations, most of which relate to medical care infrastructure and capacity —ensuring that we have enough nurses and doctors to care for the sick, and enough places and equipment with which to provide that care. Those needs, and others of similar urgency such as the effective distribution of food and other essential goods, deserve unquestioned primacy now.
Eventually, though, we’ll be on the back end of this nightmare. And when we are, we can recall that at least one of its effects — the efficiency with which it cleared our streets and highways — is worth replicating, only without the onset of another public health crisis to compel us to action.
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to learn new lessons, but it’s also reminding us of a few old ones. Among them, the most effective way to stem traffic congestion is also the most simple: Just take a lot of cars off the road. Let’s hope that we can remember and act upon that lesson when this tragic ordeal is behind us, when we can afford the luxury of refocusing on problems that aren’t life-threatening.
Bill Eisele is a senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
This article was originally published in The Dallas Morning News, March 27, 2020.