Has COVID-19 Forever Changed Rush-Hour Traffic Patterns?-Government Technology

The nearly overnight shift to remote working situations had a broad impact on commutes across the country, but the changes have also raised questions when it comes to planning for the future of transportation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended so much of daily life, and the rush-hour commute is no exception, with large swaths of the workforce now working from home.

This shift has opened the door to extensive research and conversation centered on the disruption, raising questions about the longevity of work-from-home setups, the larger transportation patterns emerging and how to plan for the future.

Some of the broad-stroke changes seen in many metropolitan areas, said Martin Morzynski, vice president of marketing and product management at transportation analysis firm StreetLight Data, is the disappearance of the morning peak rush hour.

“What’s pretty obvious is this whole shifting out of the percentage of cars on our roadways during the day that has decreased during the morning rush hour,” said Morzynski, adding traffic now tends to build throughout the day “for a variety of reasons.” These are some of the findings by StreetLight Data in its latest report COVID Transportation Trends: What You Need to Know About the “New Normal.”

Unlike the drastic changes to the morning commute, Morzynski said, the evening rush hour is still congested but has become shorter. 

“And what’s interesting is it’s happening all across the U.S. in all the major metros,” he added. A survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 77 percent of office employees are still working from home at least one day a week, and 55 percent expect to continue this trend post-COVID, which could lead to large, long-term reductions in traffic — known in transportation parlance as vehicle miles traveled (VMT). 

KPMG, an international business consulting firm, predicts in another recent study that 10 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. workforce could continue to work from home.

“So if you could impact that, you can certainly have an impact on the environment, for example,” said Morzynski. “And that speaks to our collective ability to keep back at least the peak rush hour.” All told, VMT in July was down 16.3 percent nationwide, compared to a year ago, according to StreetLight Data figures. Some of the steepest drops occurred in large coastal metros like the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City region.

These places also tended to enact coronavirus-related shutdowns early and reopen later compared against parts of the South and Upper Midwest. These are also regions with large numbers of office and professional workers.

“It’s still not back to normal in large stretches of California and the Northeast,” said Morzynski.

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