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June 29, 2021Episode 11. Now You See It, Now You Don’t: COVID-19 made traffic congestion disappear, but not for long.
FEATURING: Tim Lomax
America’s worst public health crisis in a century gave us a short-lived gridlock hiatus, as TTI Research Fellow Tim Lomax explains. The pandemic also amplified an important and timeless lesson in roadway traffic management at a time when U.S. infrastructure needs are once again top of mind.
About Our Guest
Research Fellow, Regents Fellow
Tim Lomax has researched urban traffic congestion in many contexts over more than 40 years. His interests range from performance measurement and incident management to sporting event traffic operations.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome to Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and our stuff from point A to point B, and what can happen in between. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:32):
For many years before 2020, roadway conditions followed a fairly predictable pattern. As the U.S. economy got better, traffic got worse. So until last year, the fastest way to ease traffic congestion was to have a recession. Now, of course, we know that a highly contagious virus can produce that result even quicker. COVID-19 gave us a break from the traffic delays that were costing the average American more than a thousand dollars and close to 50 hours of lost time every year. That break didn’t last for long. Come September, traffic was almost back to normal, even if most everything else in life was not. That’s our focus on this episode of Thinking Transportation. We are here with Tim Lomax, a Regents Fellow and veteran researcher here at TTI, and a co- author of the Urban Mobility Report for close to 40 years. Thanks for being here, Tim.
Tim Lomax (guest) (01:36):
Absolutely. Glad to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:38):
So the traffic reporters that were hovering in helicopters about a year ago, didn’t have all that much to talk about. Are they back in business, now?
Tim Lomax (01:47):
They’re hovering over a lot more cars now. Delay has come back, also. Certainly the truck fleets are busier, but we’re not back to where we were in 2019, but we’re not back in the 1990s where we were back in the spring of last year.
Bernie Fette (02:03):
I’m wondering if what you’ve seen in the results this year, if what you have seen is what you and your co-authors expected. What surprised you, if anything?
Tim Lomax (02:14):
The depth of the congestion decline was amazing in March, April, May. We started talking about 2020 as having four different years, being four different congestion years. January and February were kind of like 2019. March, April May, delay just pretty much disappeared, down 60 to 70 percent everywhere.
Bernie Fette (02:38):
More than cut in half in other words, right?
Tim Lomax (02:40):
Oh, yeah. Yeah. And morning peak delay was almost nothing. Mid-day delay was a little bit higher than it had been because that’s when people were out, moving around, getting groceries, carrying kids places, and then the evening, again, nowhere near 2019 delay, but a little bit more delay than the morning because that was when people were tired of being in the house and they just wanted to get out and do something. In addition to that, 60 to 70 percent drop in the March, April May timeframe across the whole year, all of the congestion statistics were down about half. So congestion cost is about half of what it was in 2019. Number of hours the average commuter spends on the road is about half. Interestingly, travel volume only went down by about 20 percent across the year. Employment again across the year was only down about 9 percent, traffic volume being down 18 percent and delay being down 50 percent. That tells you the power of that multiplier effect of traffic volume, traffic speed. The one exception to that drop is traffic volumes by truck. Those were down on the order of 10 percent or even less across the year. Because those trucks are then tied to the speed on the road, they also had substantial delay declines, but you think about all the things that we had to have delivered to our houses. And you quickly see like truck volumes, didn’t go down very much where passenger car volumes did.
Bernie Fette (04:12):
You mentioned those four years in one. Can you expand on that just a little bit?
Tim Lomax (04:18):
Sure. January and February was kind of like 2019, a little bit higher than 2019. Lockdown happened and March, especially, but really March, April May delay was down. It was back to annual national delay was like back to 1991 levels. Through the summer — June, July, August — delay recovered to maybe about 2000 levels. And towards the end of the year in the fall, it was maybe back to 2005. So we’re still at the end of 2020, we’re still essentially 15 years behind the typical delay numbers that we might see.
Bernie Fette (04:54):
So of all the things that are slowly coming back to what people like to say is normal, traffic was pretty much the one that to race back at least toward normal, more than most other things in life?
Tim Lomax (05:08):
And that was especially true in places that had opened up. It didn’t have as much relationship, especially in the fall. It didn’t have as much relationship as the, for example, COVID hospitalizations, as you might think; hospitalizations went up, there was more attention to wearing masks and more attention to social distancing, but the traffic continued to build through the fall.
Bernie Fette (05:35):
And not just hospitalizations, but if I remember right, just the sheer number of cases was rising at the same time, right?
Tim Lomax (05:41):
Right. Cases and deaths and all the negative outcomes of the pandemic.
Bernie Fette (05:47):
Yeah. For a long time, the congestion rankings in the Urban Mobility Report didn’t really change all that much from year to year. We used to refer to it as a horse race. And the horses were always kind of by a nose every year of which one was going to win. Bigger cities in particular, maybe shifted by only one or two places, but there weren’t a lot of big changes. But it sounds like that wasn’t the case this year.
Tim Lomax (06:12):
Dramatic changes in how the job base and the people reacted to COVID. But what their opportunities were. I think you saw much greater declines in areas around tourist places, for example, because you had so few tourists there, the delay from that activity goes away. Places that had maybe more shift workers or manufacturing plants, places where people have to go to work, they saw less decline in delay because those people tended to show up white collar workers, tech workers, people who could work from home, those regions with more of that kind of job force were more like the big decliners. Lots of people didn’t go to work, and so the delay just wasn’t there.
Bernie Fette (06:59):
So the less likely that you were able to work from home, those were the places where the delay tended to stay a little higher.
Tim Lomax (07:08):
Right. We’ve talked about managing demand. We’ve talked about telework for decades, and obviously this was the telework year, but it also sort of brought home how unflexible some people’s schedules are, that even if you think about adjusting to congestion and allowing people to come in to work, if you have to go into work, you have to go into work and the delay is going to be there. A lot of those people show up.
Bernie Fette (07:34):
You’ve talked a little bit about the differences in certain places. And it sounds like part of it certainly dependent on what kind of economy, what characterized the economy in certain places as to how their delay numbers might’ve looked. Is there any other way to generalize where traffic is getting worse and where it’s getting better? Or if not better, then where it might be getting worse, but not as fast?
Tim Lomax (08:00):
I think obviously where now that the economy is coming back and vaccinations are getting more prevalent, we’re seeing the places that have population and job growth. Those… the congestion in those places is coming back. The sort of places with really good economies, places with growing job markets. Those are all places that congestion is coming back. Some of that is related to lower transit ridership. There’s still a reticence to get on a bus or a train. And so places that really relied on getting their workers to the big job centers. If you’re not riding transit, you’re in a private vehicle, you’re going to see congestion come back there. One of the COVID questions is how permanent are some of these relocations? You saw a report the other day on a lot of high tech jobs relocated to Austin from Silicon Valley. Was that permanent or is that just people moving out of Silicon Valley while they can do their jobs remotely? And then those employers are going to call them back in. And so they’re all going to go back to California. A lot of this is just not known. So the permanence or the durability of these changes is really up for question.
Bernie Fette (09:17):
Well, I know it’s keeping some people guessing — namely, the real estate agents that I know.
Tim Lomax (09:22):
Yeah. You can think of the COVID pandemic as a real spur to reassess your life. Not just the job you have, the job you want, but the place you want to do it. And we have seen now there are a lot of jobs you can do remotely. It’s nice to show up in the office. It’s nice to have work colleagues. But it’s also nice to have some flexibility in your life and the degree to which companies adapt to the interests of their employees and the ways that employees will adapt to this increased flexibility. Again, I think these are some questions that we don’t know the answers to and probably won’t for two or three years, anyway.
Bernie Fette (10:04):
I’m glad you mentioned the unanswered questions, Tim, because that was something I wanted to touch on. But also you mentioned the economy factor. That seems to be one of the things that’s been consistent through all of the years that you guys have been doing this study. Economy better; traffic worse. And one of the other things I recall that’s been consistent over the years is your mantra — specifically, use every strategy that we have, in appropriate degrees, depending on which urban area we’re talking about. Did the 2020 experience change that mantra at all?
Tim Lomax (10:40):
I don’t believe it did. The thing that changed is now a lot more employers and their employees see the power of this telework idea that transportation professionals in general have been pointing to for a lot of years. That if you can move some people out of the peak period commuting, it doesn’t have to be commute to work two days a week and stay home the other three. It can be as simple as moving your commute an hour or two in either direction. You can really level out the demand, allow the system to carry a lot more trips with a lot less delay. And I think we saw that. That’s the big story in congestion solutions in 2020.
Bernie Fette (11:24):
And to accomplish that you don’t need to have a really big chunk of people taken off the roads, if I understand, right? I mean, you can take a relatively small percentage — 10, 15 percent of the people off the roads and make a difference that is far greater than what people might guess from that.
Tim Lomax (11:44):
That’s true. As long as the other 85 percent or 90 percent don’t adjust how they’re commuting and where they’re commuting, and when they’re commuting. The usual immutable law of congestion as expressed by Anthony Downs in his book, Stuck in Traffic, and then Still Stuck in Traffic, is if you add more capacity, you’re going to see people change the time they commute to take advantage of that new capacity. They’re going to change the route to the road that has the new capacity or the transit line that has a new capacity. And then they’re going to change the mode. They’re going to go from riding a train or a bus and drive their own vehicle because congestion is less. Triple convergence is what he talked about. We didn’t see that triple convergence through most of 2020. I think again, this is a reflection of how unflexible some people’s jobs are. There are a lot of people who go to work at 7:00 or 6:30 to beat the traffic, but they’re not doing that voluntarily. Or their work schedule has been adjusted so that their shift begins at 7:00 or 6:45 or something like that. So to the extent that you take the top off the rush hour portion, the rest of the commuters, as long as I don’t move around too much, will all benefit from less congestion.
Bernie Fette (13:03):
There’s a lot of renewed focus on infrastructure investment nationally, and the debate sometimes sets up this competition of sorts between the need for expanded or new roadways versus the need for maintenance — fixing what we already have. Building more roads, according to some opinions, means that we’ll just have more congestion. What’s it called? “Induced demand,” I think?
Tim Lomax (13:27):
Bernie Fette (13:27):
What are your thoughts on that?
Tim Lomax (13:29):
I think people drive to get somewhere they want to go, or they ride the bus or the train to get somewhere they want to go. There are very few people who say, you know, “there’s a new, there’s new road capacity. This morning, I’m going to go out and I’m going to drive on it. I’m not going to end up at work. I’m just going to go out and drive on it because I think that’s a really nice thing to do.” Now, I will grant that there are people who will change where they work, where they shop, where they live, in response to some of that capacity. But again, it’s almost always in service of some better lifestyle choice, better economic opportunity, a nicer place to shop, a place that has lower prices. So I don’t think that we should build a transportation system on the basis of diminishing the number of miles traveled. That’s a consideration. I think we have to look at the environmental consequences of the capacity that we’re building, but I think we should also recognize we’re trying to support a vibrant economy, lots of economic opportunity, lots of social and economic equity and inclusion concerns. We have some environmental justice issues that we need to take care of. All of that has to be factored in to providing the mobility and accessibility that people want.
Bernie Fette (14:50):
You also have a lot of opinions out there on the topic of congestion related to self-driving cars. There are those who say that self-driving cars will help to reduce traffic congestion. What do you say to that?
Tim Lomax (15:06):
At the end of the self-driving car phenomenon, pick a big number — 85, 90 percent — I think self-driving cars will be able to have that effect. Either the cars will drive themselves–there’ll be that benefit the cars that aren’t driving themselves, the person who has the 1967 Mustang, that doesn’t talk to anybody, all the other cars around it will talk about it. And they’ll sort of give it some space so it can can exist within this stream. I think the biggest benefits near-term are going to be huge safety benefits, keeping cars away from each other. Lane departure, the safety cameras, the beeping devices, all of that is going to tend to reduce crashes and tend to reduce crash-related delay. Eventually self-driving cars are going to mean much fewer crashes. The unknown is, does that mean that I can now live even farther out in the suburbs and commute to my job downtown, as I’m now in a car that looks more like a train or a bus, and I can work on my laptop while I’m taking the two-hour drive into work. Does that diminish my interest in riding transit? Does it diminish my interest in living anywhere inside a city and thus the sprawl. The other element of self-driving cars that probably doesn’t get enough discussion is what happens at the end of the trip, the access into the parking garage or the parking lot or the on-street parking. And that capacity isn’t the same as the capacity on the main freeway lanes. So you have to look at the distributional effects and whether that backs up onto the main line or not.
Bernie Fette (16:50):
You were talking about the safety benefits. So crashes and the delays they cause, that’s one of your big reasons behind traffic congestion to start with. Self-driving cars might have a congestion relief benefit, even if it’s only from reducing the crashes that cause congestion. But beyond that, we probably shouldn’t be holding our breaths.
Tim Lomax (17:13):
I think it’s a matter of what our expectations are for phasing this in. When all the cars, almost all the cars drive themselves, we’re going to see huge safety benefits. There will also undoubtedly be some congestion benefits that come not, not just from crash reduction, but from vehicles able to travel more closely and thus use the road space more efficiently. I think that we have a ways to go before we get there. And there’s a lot of things to learn about human behavior before we get there.
Bernie Fette (17:43):
Yeah. No matter what solutions we’re talking about though, there’s going to be a cost involved for doing whatever is that we do. What’s the cost of doing nothing?
Tim Lomax (17:53):
The cost of doing nothing is pretty large, especially in growing areas. You can see areas that are corridors, for sure that are very congested and you add 2 percent more cars and delay goes up more like 5 percent. There’s a multiplier effect. Every car that gets added not only slows down the traffic stream, you’re also adding another car to the vehicles that are going slower. So you have more cars going even more slowly than before. And the downside of not doing anything is that those delays stretch to more of the day and the effects become not just extra travel time, but very unreliable travel time. You leave on a trip that you think would normally take half an hour, but it’s a really important trip. And so you have to allow 50 minutes or an hour. At the end of the trip, you normally get there in half an hour, so you got 20 minutes to sit in the dentist office and read magazines, or you in essence have some unproductive early arrival time, but that’s because you had to allow enough extra time to adjust for the fact that the transportation system isn’t very reliable. And it’s even worse for freight shippers, truckers with a delivery window. You have to be at the dock in this half hour window. Well, if that’s your only window, then you need a plan to be there a lot farther ahead of time. Otherwise you lose your window, you lose your load, lose the payment.
Bernie Fette (19:31):
So the cost of doing nothing, then in a way is pretty high and it’s a cost that’s going to be shared by everybody, whether we’re talking about the time that you lose or the added costs in product deliveries and everything that goes into figuring the costs of what we pay for what we use.
Tim Lomax (19:48):
Bernie Fette (19:48):
Yeah. From time to time over the years that you and your colleagues have done this research, you’ve sometimes had detractors — people who’ve criticized the research either for how it was done or what its findings were or both. What’s the best response in the face of that criticism?
Tim Lomax (20:11):
We have always tried to look at the criticisms of the report as an opportunity to check our methodology. If you look back at what we’ve done in the 37 years we’ve been doing these reports, we’ve probably had 20 big methodology changes. Whether that’s data change, sometimes that’s calculation. Sometimes it’s different performance measures. Some of those were in response to criticisms we got about what we were emphasizing, how we were talking about the congestion problem and mobility solutions, how congestion affects people. Certainly there’s a tendency on the part of a researcher to think that they’re doing the best job they possibly can. But I think we’ve always tried to figure out what of the criticism we can incorporate and do a better job of either telling the story or doing the calculations.
Bernie Fette (21:08):
You mentioned 37 years. When you started, you started when fax machines were still the picture of efficiency. And I can still remember the year that we learned we can double our efficiency, double our productivity just by adding a second fax machine. And as I recall, that worked.
Tim Lomax (21:27):
The magic of math.
Bernie Fette (21:28):
Tim Lomax (21:28):
We also added efficiencies by having Bernie and his folks do it rather than me do it. Really, what we learned very early on is the power of this data story that we have, but doing it in a way that has a communications expertise along with it. If you had been left to the engineer, planner, data specialists, we would not be anywhere near as useful as really pointedly addressing the issue as we have been able to do with our communications folks. I think that’s what sets us apart from a lot of other people who do this kind of research, it certainly sets the Institute up for showcase of a broad range of talents that we have here. Until we started incorporating the communication elements from the start of the analysis, we didn’t have an appreciation for how powerful that could be bringing the folks in on the front end, before we did the analysis, as opposed to on the back end to just write the press release.
Bernie Fette (22:36):
It does matter a lot whenever you’ve got a topic of research that touches virtually every living human like this one does. Did studying traffic congestion in the midst of a public health crisis leave you with any unanswered questions? Is there anything you wish you could examine, but can’t right now because you just don’t have the information you need?
Tim Lomax (23:00):
We will be sorting through this data for a while. We have enough data about traffic to make some really good guesses at what was happening, but we would, for example, like to figure out how does this COVID hospitalizations, cases, fatalities compare to a number of trends, not just the congestion trends but safety trends. And are there lessons we can learn that we can apply? Not just the next time we have a pandemic, but the next time we go to look at a project list. What can we learn from where people moved and whether they stayed there, they decamped from their regular job commute. Do they go back to that? Did they change jobs? Did they change professions? Did they just change cities? All of that is not knowable because all of that could change in the course of the next year or two as people adjust to whatever the new normal is.
Bernie Fette (23:59):
I’m wondering what kinds of decisions might be better informed by knowing what you just talked about by making those connections between the delay numbers and the case and hospitalization or fatality numbers.
Tim Lomax (24:14):
There’s a lot of messaging expertise or messaging knowledge that we should be able to get from the reaction to the pandemic. The … who are the trusted advisors, message carriers for information and what amount and what type of data are really useful for people to make a decision. How do we get that information in their hands in a way that’s timely and relevant? We had some glimpses of how that changed during the pandemic, and understanding what the uptake was on that information and how people moved on that information and how that changed over the course of months and lived experiences should be really interesting for transportation to sort through and figure out what, what in there is useful and relevant.
Bernie Fette (25:06):
Is there anything that we haven’t covered that we should have, or that you wish we would’ve covered?
Tim Lomax (25:12):
I think the change in land use over the next half dozen years is going to be really interesting. We saw downtowns get pretty evacuated for a while during COVID. If we have more ability to telecommute, do we still see people wanting to live downtown and walk or bike or take transit to work in a very dense activity center? Because we saw that trend before the pandemic. I tend to think that that was a pretty durable trend, but it will be really important to figure that out. And if an area really wants to be denser for whatever set of reasons — climate change, environmental justice, social equity, whatever set of reasons the growth pattern is desired — it will be important to understand what has changed and therefore what messaging or incentive system might need to change to accomplish some societal goal.
Bernie Fette (26:16):
You’ve got a lot of questions you still need to answer, it sounds like.
Tim Lomax (26:21):
We have been through a period over the 37 years. We’ve been looking at this where congestion went up every year, even during the economic recession of ’08 – ’09 — national congestion, didn’t go down. It sort of flattened out for a couple of years.
Bernie Fette (26:36):
Even after losing like six or seven million jobs.
Tim Lomax (26:40):
Right. We may be down 10, 15 million jobs at this point and we’ve already recovered some. Some people have left the workforce completely. Some people have changed where they live and where they work. And there is still a lot to be learned about why those changes happened and what if any changes we need to make in transportation to address them.
Bernie Fette (27:03):
Tim Lomax. Regents Fellow, and a co-author of the Urban Mobility Report for close to 40 years. Tim, thanks very much for sharing your time and insight with us.
Tim Lomax (27:13):
I enjoyed it. I hope it’s helpful.
Bernie Fette (27:16):
The last time we saw traffic like we had in early 2020, the first George Bush was president and postage stamps cost 25 cents. But like many other things in life, roadway congestion for the most part was rebounding toward pre-COVID levels before the end of the year. As America emerges from the pandemic, 2021 promises to be another traffic year like so many others — worse than those that came before. And as those who study it know well, what causes gridlock hasn’t changed much over the years, but what can fix it may have.
Bernie Fette (27:57):
We hope you’ll be back next time for a conversation with Neil Johnson, an expert in pedestrian safety at TTI who will help us explore recent trends for the most vulnerable users of our transportation system.
Bernie Fette (28:12):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.