The coronavirus changed our working and shopping patterns, and the changes could be permanent.
By Ginger Goodin
As the COVID-19 vaccines are distributed, we’re one step closer to addressing how we can avoid falling victim to one of the most destructive diseases ever. What’s gotten less attention are the questions of how and where we are likely to work, live and shop once this global crisis is behind us.
All three of those require a robust transportation system, and all three have changed dramatically in recent months. That much we know. What we don’t yet know is how to ensure that our transportation system is prepared to support a post-pandemic nation.
That’s the goal of work we’re now doing at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI).
Many of us at TTI, like so many others, are working largely if not exclusively from our homes or other non-office environments. Some organizations may elect to make work-from-home a permanent practice. Any lasting shift to telecommuting could reduce traffic congestion, traffic crashes, vehicle emissions and other negative factors. It’s also likely to cause long-term erosion in public transit use, a system that is keenly important to many essential workers.
Choices of how and where we work naturally will influence where we choose to live. Pandemic-influenced changes in work culture may be a factor in the sharp increase in home sales in many regions, a potential indicator of the long-term adoption of behaviors like telecommuting or home relocation, which can lead to changing patterns of land use as people move to suburban communities or beyond.
While the number of work-related trips has declined, the opposite has been true for the movement of goods. Even as e-commerce deliveries have grown during our public health crisis, the pandemic has at the same time exposed a critical vulnerability in the supply chains that feed those deliveries. Certain industries are already exploring adjustments that would reduce reliance on Asian trade and make supply chains more resilient, and therefore deliveries more reliable.
Our research shows that if 25% of China’s exports to the U.S. are sourced to Mexico, international truck and rail border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico would increase by more than 40%. This would exacerbate already serious border traffic gridlock.
Our greatest public health crisis in more than a century has already changed how and where we work, live, and shop. And even after we emerge from our isolated and socially distanced reality, those changes are, to at least some degree, likely to persist and raise questions that require thoughtful and well-informed answers.
- To what extent will telecommuting become a norm, and how will it impact our need for roads?
- Is the increase in home sales during the pandemic primarily happening in suburban and exurban areas, and if so, what would this mean for how our transportation systems are planned and developed?
- Will e-commerce maintain its current growth trajectory, and if so, what does that mean for delivery demand and its impact on streets and highways?
These changes bring up issues related to equity and environmental justice, transportation funding and air quality and other questions that merit our attention. The pursuit of answers requires us to choose science over speculation, just as those working to develop a preventive pharmaceutical have had to do.
The search for a vaccine has always been concerned with living through the pandemic; the questions that remain will largely determine how we’re going to live beyond it.
Ginger Goodin is a senior research engineer and regents fellow at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
This article was originally published in The Dallas Morning News, December 28, 2020.