Can Pandemic-Era Changes Ease Painful Rush Hours?

If even a small fraction of workers continue to work remotely or have more flexible hours, the resulting reduction in rush hour travelers could have a significant impact on peak hour congestion.

June 16, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


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With a third of U.S. workers in jobs that can be performed remotely, the traditional rush hour–that "uniquely awful" time of day when red brake lights know no end and "there is no good way to get around"–could be history. During the pandemic, writes Emily Badger in the New York Times, people not only worked remotely but also adjusted their work schedules to more flexible hours, flattening traffic peaks and reducing congestion. But, even as the economy reawakens and traffic starts to return, "planners, transit agencies and researchers are now considering the remarkable possibility that in many places it won’t revert to its old shape amid newfound work flexibility."

According to Badger, even a small shift in work hours could make a major difference. Because "roadway congestion is nonlinear," even "a modest number of people working from home on a Thursday" could make peak hour commutes "perceptibly less miserable." This goes for passenger comfort on public transit, too. "Until all the seats are gone, more passengers don’t affect you much. But once the aisle starts to fill up, every new body erodes your personal space and compounds chaos at the boarding door." Research has shown that "marginal changes in commute behavior on Jewish holidays, when most employers remain open but a small share of commuters stays home," create visible benefits in rush hour traffic reduction. "In Washington, D.C., compressed schedules and telework policies for federal workers had created noticeably saner traffic on Friday mornings. On the region’s Metrorail, peak ridership before the pandemic was consistently 10 percent to 15 percent lower on Fridays than midweek."

For decades, the "central paradigm of transportation planning" revolved around how to make rush hour less terrible. If we are able to ease demand at peak times, we can "consider a universe where more people don’t have to time their lives to the rhythm of rush hour — and where whole cities aren’t so preoccupied by what to do about it."

Friday, June 11, 2021 in The New York Times

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