Before everything is weird and terrible, there were those things called rush hour. Between, say, 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., many people would leave their homes to go to work or school, filling the roads, buses, subway cars and cycle lanes. Then, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., they would reverse their movements.
Then came the global pandemic and the nationwide shutdowns, and things calmed down for a while. By early spring 2020, vehicle kilometers had fallen by 40%, according to transportation analyst firm StreetLight Data. Those who lived near highways and the city’s generally bustling streets enjoyed the clear skies and blissful calm.
Now the rush hour has returned. Streetlight Data estimates that U.S. vehicles traveled 20% more kilometers in March 2021 compared to the previous year. But the circulation patterns are very different. In many large metropolitan areas across the United States, what was once the morning rush is more like a jog. Instead, the traffic slowly builds up throughout the day, culminating in a big crowd in the afternoon.
In the San Francisco metro area, for example, vehicle-kilometers driven fell by about half during the 7-8 hour peak at the end of winter, compared to the previous year. But the kilometers traveled during the evening rush, between 5 and 6 p.m., are only down by a quarter. The total number of kilometers traveled by vehicles in the region was still down 25% overall this winter.
Traffic is an indicator, say experts, offering insight into a region’s economic vitality, its goals, its character. Now, as more Americans get vaccinated, return to work and school, and resume their social lives, government officials are eager to find out what parts of pandemic-era travel behavior were linked to blockages, and stemming from broader remote work policies, who may be here to stay. Some cities fund research to examine these questions; the answers will probably indicate the future of the city.
The travel behavior of teleworkers is not as straightforward as it seems. Research on teleworkers before the pandemic suggests that people working from home tend to emerge in the afternoon. Many take the roads to coffee shops, libraries, business meetings and customer sites. Jonathan Stiles, a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University who studied the commuting behavior of teleworkers, found that people with flexible jobs or schedules that are suitable for teleworking tend to use this flexibility to stay home in the morning, but then venture out later. One of his studies found that only a third of remote workers stay in one place all day. If more people feel safe traveling, they will likely increase traffic.
Other researchers have noted that allowing people to telecommute sometimes encourages workers to move from dense city centers and nearby suburbs to more remote areas. At the end, they may end up driving more, just to do the same kind of shopping as before.
Some managers like to see the traffic come back, up to a point. “You see it as a positive point. It’s more of an economic activity, ”says Darin Chidsey, chief operating officer of the Southern California Association of Governments, a regional planning organization that represents 191 cities. The fact that the inhabitants are outside during the afternoon now means that “people come back to pick up and take the children to school, do activities, go shopping”.
His organization wants to understand what is happening in this near post-pandemic period in order to be able to prepare for the post-pandemic realities. Last year he started working with UC Davis researchers to understand how the pandemic has affected local employment, household organization, shopping, vehicle ownership, travel habits and general equity issues, and what changes may be permanent. If researchers find that more people will continue to work from home, it could open up opportunities for towns and villages once viewed as sleepy dormitory quarters – for local downtown revitalization and ultimately more local tax revenue.