Cleaner air, calm highways, and roads that have suddenly become much more bike-friendly than anyone could have imagined are constant reminders that the health crisis has a hopeful side.
Transportation planners in Palo Alto and elsewhere now face a key question: Will any of these benefits survive the pandemic?
Steve Raney, who administers the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, has been exploring this issue for several weeks. Raney, consultant at Altrans TMA Inc. co-wrote a white paper earlier this month, which examines what the commute is likely to look like immediately after the pandemic and in the long term. Citing data from transport agencies, research from transport think tanks, and his own observations, Raney concluded that the ways we move are going to change, although traffic will likely largely return to its original levels. before the pandemic within a year.
The analysis, which Raney summarized in a Medium post, also suggests that the months immediately following the pandemic will see a decline in carpooling, an increase in telecommuting, and a greater shift to cycling for those who live close enough to their workplace.
In many ways, getting people to not drive alone will remain a major challenge. The pandemic has crippled public transportation, harmed ride-sharing services and made bike-sharing programs harder to sell. But it can also usher in some unexpected benefits even long after stay-at-home orders are lifted, Raney said.
Experts expect some of the “slow streets” projects cities like Oakland and Denver put in place during the pandemic to give cyclists and pedestrians enough room for social distancing to stay in place. Palo Alto has yet to launch such a program, although transport manager Philip Kamhi told the council earlier this month that its staff are preparing to do so soon.
Transport experts in other cities also see this quiet period as an opportunity to implement projects that would be more difficult to start under normal circumstances and to change the habits of commuters. The article Raney co-authored with Kruti Ladani notes that “as the economy recovers, the return of commuters to the workplace offers a unique opportunity to establish new commuting habits.”
Transportation demand management programs and organizations “will exploit this period of habit formation to move post-COVID travel further away from the status quo,” Raney and Ladani wrote.
This view is not limited to Palo Alto. TO recent webinar sponsored by Ride Healthy, a bicycle advocacy group, transportation planner Timothy Papandreou highlighted the more than 100 cities around the world that are implementing “slow streets” projects during the pandemic. These projects restrict cars and provide more space for cyclists and pedestrians, making it easier for them to practice physical distancing.
“They are taking the opportunity now,” said Papandreo, former director of innovation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and founder of San Francisco-based consulting firm Emerging Transport Advisors. “And we’ve seen other cities take it to the next level. Paris and Milan said, ‘This is it. We’re going to do hundreds of kilometers or miles of this. “
“Now is the time to grab that. It’s also an opportunity to test things that would have been difficult to test. You can actually iterate a lot faster now.”
Seleta Reynolds, chief executive of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said the pandemic gives the city a chance to rethink its transportation programs and make them more equitable, given the challenge of using transit services at a time when physical distance is required.
“We have to use this moment of stillness to come up with a radical and different function of public transit that can begin to address the fact that until there is a widely available and affordable vaccine, which is probably a year and a half away, people will not be able to use public transport, and if we do not solve their mobility problems, we will lock them even further into poverty.
One idea, she said, is to use some of the federal stimulus funds designated for public transit to buy electric vehicles and make them available to neighborhood residents to use for free. Another idea is to buy electric bicycles and lend them to people for commuting to work.
The transit conundrum is equally applicable to the Bay Area, where Caltrain and BART saw their ridership totals drop by more than 90% during the pandemic. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has seen passenger numbers drop 89% and now offers free rides.
While those numbers are sure to rebound once the threat of COVID-19 abates and businesses reopen after the mandatory shelter-at-home order, experts believe it may be some time before the public transport use does not return to its previous levels. Raney quoted Frances Edwards, deputy director of the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute, who estimated that once traffic returns to freeways, transit use in congested corridors will quickly drop to 75% of the time. pre-pandemic level. According to the estimate, it would take about a year for public transport use to reach 100%.
Raney and Ladani say in their article that some transit and mobility services may require all passengers to wear masks to protect others from “droplet spread” and allow ridership to increase more quickly. In some cases, private commuter buses may impose tests twice a month on people who board the buses to ensure safe journeys. He pointed to reports that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently called for testing all Amazon employees. Others could follow his example.
The only factor that will likely help transit agencies recover their ridership is traffic congestion. The worse the highways, the more people will start to board trains and buses.
“When you have a lousy hallway like US Highway 101, as it gets filled with () traffic, transit will bounce well in those hallways,” Raney said.
While the use of public transport remains a major wildcard, cycling could see a slight increase. Raney and Ladani’s article indicates that we can expect more bike trips because the mode allows people to maintain physical distance. Other factors also argue in favor of cycling. Even before the pandemic, Stanford University and other large employers in the Palo Alto area were rolling out programs to encourage employees to cycle. Facebook and Google have launched pilot programs to equip employees with electric bikes, he said.
Palo Alto was fair on the verge of implementing a self-service bicycle program when the health crisis happened. The effort could now be hampered by concerns about the contagion of the virus. But the city has also ramped up implementation of its master plan for cycling in recent years, an effort the city halted after a public outcry over Ross Road changes and which it was set to resume when the pandemic hit. hit.
Raney said Palo Alto TMA is preparing to introduce an incentive program to help people ride bikes. It will allow users who cycle to work to receive a cash credit that they can spend at local businesses. The program uses GPS-based software to make sure people are riding bikes and includes a “commuter wallet” app that will allow users to pay via QR codes on their phones.
The effort of “slow streets” can also help boost cycling, although Raney noted that it is mostly limited to large cities like Oakland. Other cities have implemented more limited versions of this, with San Francisco this week banning traffic from a major segment of Golden Gate Park. Raney said he believes some of these bike upgrades will survive the pandemic.
“You can’t end up with 74 miles, but you can end up with 7 miles of slow streets,” Raney said. “Some would stick.”
The one area where everyone agrees to see a big boost after the shutdown is telecommuting. Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure for the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., Said the pandemic has forced cities and employers to demonstrate “proof of concept” when it comes to working from home.
“Maybe we don’t like forced telecommuting that much, but telecommuting is a viable alternative to commuting,” Ricks said during the April 22 webinar.
Many studies also suggest that telecommuting has a lot of room for growth. Global Workplace Analytics, a research firm specializing in workplace strategies, estimated that about 56% of the workforce could work from home at least part of the time. However, only 3.6% of the workforce currently does so for half of their allotted time or more. The company concluded that employees who worked remotely before the pandemic will do so more frequently once they are allowed to return to the office. For those new to remote working, “there will be a significant increase in their adoption.”
“Our best guess is that we’ll see 25-30% of the workforce working from home (a) several days a week by the end of 2021,” the company concluded.
Raney also concluded that the trend “will stay”, although he predicted that around 10% will continue to telecommute after the pandemic. During the COVID-19 shutdown, he and Ladani wrote: “Many workers have proven their ability to work from home”. The ability for more people to work remotely also means that suburban cities considering new office developments can now convincingly demand that developers keep their individual vehicle rates at 65% or less (vs. 75% which was the norm before the pandemic).
This, says his article, is based on “the hypothesis of an enlarged part of teleworking modes of transport”.
“If managed well, tenants can accommodate more employees in the same building for almost the same cost,” he and Ladani wrote.
Even with more people working remotely, Raney said he expects traffic to gradually return to Highway 101. The lack of traffic jams can be a relief for many, but it’s also a relief. incentive for people to get into their cars during rush hour.
“Induced demand is a phenomenon that we have to deal with,” said Raney.
Find comprehensive coverage of the Midpeninsula’s response to the novel coronavirus from Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.