By Tim Lomax, David Schrank, and Bill Eisele
COVID-19’s impact on roadway traffic was deep and widespread, and it was entirely predictable given the shutdowns that occurred. What’s equally clear, is the lesson we can draw from our experience, particularly now, as American infrastructure needs are once again top of mind. That lesson is: the simplest path to mitigating roadway gridlock is, and has always been, reducing the demand for limited road space.
When 14 million people were suddenly unemployed, they were no longer taking up road space to travel to their jobs. And lots of those who still had jobs weren’t on the roads either, assigned instead to a work-from-home regimen that left our transportation network less crowded than it’s been in many decades.
As a result, traffic delay dropped by 60 or 70 percent – almost overnight – in March and April 2020. Congestion rebounded over the second half of the year, but most of the key stats – extra travel time, wasted fuel and overall cost – were half of their 2019 levels. Truck traffic, on the other hand, hardly dropped off at all during the year, a result of increased at-home delivery of everyday items such as hamburgers, cereal and toilet paper.
The Urban Mobility Report has long advocated for a multi-strategy approach to addressing the nation’s roadway gridlock dilemma. That includes getting the best possible use out of the current network by rapidly clearing crashes and timing the traffic signals, adding capacity for cars, trucks, buses, trains and bicycle/pedestrian routes, and changing land development patterns.
But, changing the way travelers use the transportation system by changing when, where and/or how they travel produces the quickest result – as long as the broadband service and employer support for flexible work schedules is present. It makes good sense to take a bold step now toward reducing congestion. That’s especially true at a time when pandemic-related traffic relief is still fresh in our minds.
We’ve been tracking roadway congestion at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute for almost 40 years. Over that time, we’ve never seen such dramatic drops in traffic delay and associated costs as we did in 2020. Even when U.S. job losses topped 6 million in the 2009 recession, America hardly even hit the pause button on traffic congestion, which quickly resumed its growth pattern along with a recovering job market.
Traffic congestion isn’t the only impediment to travel efficiency that faces us, of course. Our greatest public health crisis in more than a century has already changed how and where we work, live and shop. Will companies be willing to make long-term commitments to work-from-home options or flexible work hours to help alleviate traffic congestion, with the added benefit of improving quality of life for their employees?
These changes also bring up long-time issues related to equity and environmental justice, transportation funding and air quality and other questions—all of which have no one-size-fits-all solution—just like roadway congestion. During the pandemic, individuals with low incomes, limited technology access, fixed-work schedules, and other barriers to transportation had numerous challenges, such as transit systems being forced to cut their schedules and routes, just when the essential workers who depend on these systems the most were in intense demand.
COVID-19 gave us an historic traffic hiatus, but it also amplified important and timeless lessons in mobility management during a crisis—and beyond. What remains to be seen is how well we can apply what we’ve learned to improve mobility and accessibility to transportation for all communities.
Tim Lomax, David Schrank, and Bill Eisele are researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), and co-authors of TTI’s 2021 Urban Mobility Report. The report is available at https://mobility.tamu.edu/umr/.
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