The Commute of the Future: Congested Mess, or Massive Mode Shift?

Researchers around the world are trying to get an idea about how increased automobile trips, fewer shared modes, and high unemployment will alter long-term trends in transportation.

May 17, 2020, 9:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Traffic and Speed

ARENA Creative / Shutterstock

A preview of the post-pandemic commute is emerging as parts of the world loosen travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, according to an article by Laura Bliss, but the message so far is mixed. On the one hand, people are choosing cars over public transit, but on the other hand, some people are driving less.

Peak rush-hour traffic in Shenzhen is roughly 10% over its 2019 baseline, while congestion in Auckland, New Zealand, is creeping up every day. In North America, gasoline demand is rising and cars are retaking the streets, while mass transit ridership remains low and working from home is the status quo for 2020 (and possibly onwards) at tech-forward employers such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Already thinking beyond the short-term effects in a few specific locales, researchers are endeavoring to predict post-pandemic trends in transportation. Bliss surveys the emerging body of research on the subject, finding evidence that people all over the world are rethinking commutes, and not everyone is necessarily going to be jumping behind the wheel at every possible opportunity.

Still, according to one study by researchers at Vanderbilt University, congestion could become an overwhelming challenge if most people end up replacing transit trips with car trips. 

Dense cities such as New York and San Francisco that are more reliant on public transit and have lower capacity for vehicle traffic were much more sensitive to added cars, compared to more auto-oriented cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta. For example, if just one in four transit and carpool commuters start to drive alone, San Francisco could witness a 20-minute increase in daily vehicle travel times. That shoots up to a 40-minute increase if three in four of those commuters switch.

Another caveat must be noted, however: projections like those in the previous passage don't capture the effects of fewer people driving, either because they are working from home, or because they don't have a job to drive to every day.

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