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How lockdowns changed US transportation and what should happen next

How lockdowns changed U.S. transportation and what comes next

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How lockdowns changed US transportation and what should happen next

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The transport of people and goods changed drastically due to the pandemic. The question remains, however, if it will remain changed and, if so, in what ways. 

March marks one year since Americans were first told to stay home from work, school, the gym, houses of worship, restaurants and other indoor spaces hosting businesses or activities deemed non-essential. Workplace commutes diminished, delivery trucks took over the roads, and Americans dusted off bicycles and scooters. 

Emergent transportation patterns vary widely by region, as will the changes to come, says Dr. Julie Swann, a professor and department head for the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University. Here are her thoughts on how transportation has changed and what good might come from those changes. 

One year after lockdowns began, how do traffic pattern changes compare among the different regions of the U.S.? 

It is fascinating to view mobility patterns across states and regions from the past year. From the Google mobility data measuring movement of devices, we can see that traffic patterns reduced significantly for most of 2020 in places like the District of Columbia (likely due to reduced commuting) and Hawaii (fewer travelers in or out). It also changed in dense areas such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, driven both by reduced commuting and by less retail traffic. There was less change in traffic patterns in places such as South Dakota, Idaho, Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, as a percentage of the movement from January 2020.

Dr. Julie Swann

Within a state, we have seen that the traffic patterns have tended to change more in urban areas and less in rural areas, except for vacation areas that have still attracted some people. If you look at where we are right now, most states in the U.S. still have greatly reduced traffic for February 2021 compared to February 2020 for both retail/recreation settings and workplaces, with a few exceptions (Idaho, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota., South Dakota and Wyoming). 

How has the profile of the transportation end-user changed in this one year, and for how long do you anticipate this profile to remain? 

In the last year, there have been major changes to demand related to transportation. Data is even available that shows this for each country around the world, and in regions within each country through a Google initiative (also available in some data tracking websites) or companies like SafeGraph. In countries like the U.K. and the U.S., the traffic to workplaces has decreased by 30-50% over the last year, there are many fewer trips through transit stations and to retail locations, and park usage was high during the warmer months. The extent of the change in end-user demand varies quite a bit by country and the control level of the pandemic. 

Looking forward, I expect that there are many people who enjoy not commuting to work daily, and many companies have realized it is possible to remain productive with a smaller footprint in-person. On the other hand, I think that there are many people who look forward to being able to enjoy social outings to restaurants, sporting events, or other recreation activities that currently may feel risky. I anticipate this type of end-user demand will change as we reach closer to having high levels of protection in each community. 

Air travel has also reduced during the pandemic but is likely to begin easing higher as vaccination rates increase. The changes during the pandemic have impacted business transportation, including many deliveries to homes (e.g., Amazon, food, other) and some changes in global supply chains, and there is generally less traffic on the street at any given time in the U.S. We are also seeing greater usage of self-propelled transportation such as bicycles, and I expect this to continue to be a strong trend.

The pandemic has shown the inadequacies of fuel taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure. What are the most viable alternatives, and what stands in their way? 

Many think that transport infrastructure in the US needs great improvement, across the network of roads, bridges, ports, freight rail systems and transport systems related to people.  We are also seeing many changes in transportation such as greater use of electric vehicles, and the disruptions caused by the pandemic may hasten some of the changes. 

Existing funding (e.g., through state and local funding or fuel tax) has not been enough to address the gaps. It is possible that we will see greater federal funding on transportation infrastructure (new and current) in the short to medium term, as well as greater use of public-private partnerships and other financing changes. Investments could also impact employment. 

Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has discussed several areas of importance including transit deserts that reduce connections to economic opportunity, federal loans to assist local sources of funding, equity, climate change, and more, with a recently unveiled infrastructure plan. There are many challenges to obtaining the investments needed for transportation infrastructure including the large amount of funding and the political (and individual) willpower for change. It is quite possible that the past year has brought the U.S. to a point where we can see change in this important area. 

Should our transportation infrastructure strategy change fundamentally, based on what we’ve witnessed these past 12 months?

Great disruption can lead to innovation. The pandemic has been a terrible event, resulting in the loss of life, educational gaps and a growing divide in the country. I hope that the many disruptions that we have faced in the U.S. will also lead us to innovation in areas related to supply chains and to transportation. 

For supply chains, it has become clear that the U.S. has many critical products that have vulnerable supply chains, which are prone to disruptions of many types. We have also seen more change in transportation patterns in one year than may have happened in the five or 10 preceding years. 

I think end-users are going to look for ways to decrease commuting time (including by moving or teleworking), and to have different experiences when they are commuting (e.g., electric bicycle). These changes will in turn lead to different types of investments in transport infrastructure (e.g., charging stations for electric cars, bike paths, localized communities where needs can be met without driving far distances, high speed rail, smart cities). 

We should be looking for new ways to finance these investments as well as more traditional ones to fix failing roads and bridges. These changes will not be possible with the existing financing infrastructure alone, and I expect that we will see new proposals to address this over the coming months and years. Change is hard, but sometimes it is needed.