How Will Transportation, Commutes Change In A Post-Coronavirus World? We Asked Experts Some are fighting to get back what they once had. Others see this as an opportunity to rethink the way we get around.
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How Will Transportation, Commutes Change In A Post-Coronavirus World? We Asked Experts

How Will Transportation, Commutes Change In A Post-Coronavirus World? We Asked Experts

Your reaction to this image has probably changed in the last two months. Will you ride Metro again? ep_jhu/Flickr hide caption

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It wasn't too long ago that it was normal to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a packed Metro train, or hop on a shared bike or scooter. But in a world changed by the coronavirus pandemic, those situations may cause anxiety for many.

Transportation officials are already seeing dramatic changes during the pandemic — some of which they called for, like reduced ridership on public transit. Metro says rail ridership is down 95%, while Virginia's Department of Transportation reports a 40-60% traffic reduction on its highways.

And the longer people are forced to stay home, the longer it may be to return to "normal."

We spoke to transportation officials about what they predict the new normal will be in a post-pandemic world. Some are fighting to get back what they once had. Others see this as an opportunity to rethink the way we get around. What we don't know is how big of a shift the region will see, and how long it will last, after the coronavirus subsides.

Will Public Transit Rebound?

Metro closed 19 stations in the wake of the coronavirus, and drastically reduced service to limit worker exposure. Only about 130,000-150,000 trips happen a day on Metrorail and bus combined, as opposed to roughly 980,000 trips taken on an average weekday in February. Most trips now are taken by hospital staff, essential government workers, grocery and pharmacy employees and more.

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District Department of Transportation Director Jeff Marootian, who is serving on the WMATA board, says it's painful to tell people not to ride.

"Before the health crisis, we saw big gains in WMATA rail ridership and the beginning of a real turn around story on bus with new energy around bus infrastructure in particular," Marootian said. "It has been tough to tell people 'Don't use Metro' having spent so much time focusing on building the case for why people should ride Metro."

It's unclear how long it would take for Metro to earn back ridership.

Metro officials say they won't flip the switch and have full service again when cases subside. Chief Safety Officer Theresa Impastato says service will come back in a phased approach.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is poised to recommend every other row of seats to be cordoned off to maintain social distancing, a lower number of maximum riders per vehicle and increased service. Rear-boarding in buses, mainly to protect drivers, will likely stay in place. And Metro may put down markers on the floor to try to space out riders.

Face masks will likely be a new norm for a while.

Impastato says models on when the pandemic will subside vary widely, but they average about 75 days out, roughly mid-July.

"There are indications that infection rates are not uniform in the region and that certain areas of our demographics will be harder hit which must be considered in the service restoration process," Impastato told the Metro board last week. "We will establish criteria for each level of service, balancing the potential for secondary and tertiary infection peaks, the potential for workforce availability constraints and the potential for certain segments of the populace to remain indefinitely on telework."

In early April, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said he expects riders to eventually come back.

"We've seen it in history, when tragic events occur that, yes, there's a shock to a lot of things that we do," Wiedefeld said. "But over time, we tend to go back to what we all enjoy and the way our economy works and everything else."

Are We Headed For Worse Traffic Jams Than Before?

Transportation planners often look at trips by type: commuting to work and home, shopping and more.

All of those trips are down. People have changed the methods of how they get around, and travel patterns are altered, says Kanti Srikanth, director of the region's Transportation Planning Board. He points to an Inrix report that shows personal travel is down 50% in Maryland.

While traffic jams are down, speeds are up nearly 27%, according to Inrix data.

"Both now and going forward, there will be a greater need for automated traffic enforcement programs to check the dangerous speeding on our roadways during this present novel coronavirus crisis," American Automobile Association (AAA)'s John Townsend said. "COVID-19 is a killer, so too is excessive speeding."

Many experts are predicting people will seek a safe haven from the virus by driving alone. Commuting alone has decreased from 70% to 58% over the past 20 years as more people rely on public transit and other modes of travel.

But even with that decline, the region still faces traffic jams.

The share of commuters who drive alone has dropped over the past 20 years, but could that trend reverse after the pandemic? Transportation Planning Board/2019 State of the Commute hide caption

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Transportation Planning Board/2019 State of the Commute

Planners say we could be in for more traffic problems if the 25% of commuters who take public transit choose to drive. Adding even just a little more traffic to an already congested road can make an outsized impact.

Townsend says the fear factor will remain until a vaccine is in place.

"With their safety and well-being a top of the mind-matter, commuters will not forsake social distancing measures," he says.

In Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began, car traffic doubled after the 76-day lockdown.

Gas prices are also at a five-year low in the region, which often encourages more driving.

Anecdotally, some say they have or will buy cars because of the pandemic.

Will More People Telework?

Businesses might be more open to the idea of employees working from home after this forced experiment.

The region's 2019 State of the Commute suggests about a third of people telecommute once a week. Another third say they can't work from home — mostly those are your essential workers who have to be on site.

About a third of commuters say they telework on average about once a week. Many say they can't. Transportation Planning Board/2019 State of the Commute hide caption

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Transportation Planning Board/2019 State of the Commute

But another segment says their employers won't allow telework, or they're in an industry that requires in-person work. That's where we may see change.

"Remote working in some form may continue to be our regional operating model in key sectors," says District Department of Transportation Director Jeff Marootain. "While there are significant environmental and other benefits to this, it also translates into fewer commutes on our transit systems."

More Walking, Biking And Changes To Infrastructure

The streets around us have changed as more people are trying to get outside to walk, bike and run while gyms are closed. Sidewalks have expanded. DDOT installed more than a dozen new pick-up and drop-off zones in areas with lots of restaurants.

Marootian says "These are all things that we introduced prior to the pandemic. The emphasis has shifted but the underlying premise remains the same."

The pandemic has hit the pause button on a regular life and many want to take the opportunity to reshape the world the way they want to see it, including District leadership.

Cyclists say they've never felt safer with reduced traffic and cleaner air. They want to seize the moment. As other cities are adding dozens of miles of bike lanes during the pandemic, so far only some regional streets have closed to traffic and no new bike lanes are planned.

A former biking columnist predicts cycling will remain one of the best and economical ways to go short-and-medium distances, but he still doesn't think officials will make changes to make cycling safer in D.C.

And in the realm of shared scooters and bikes, some are worried about whether or not startup companies are able to stay afloat during the pandemic. DDOT says Capital Bikeshare rides are down 75% year-to-date.

Robert Gardner, who works on government relations for scooter-share company Lime, says he hopes cities will loosen regulations as they may be used more in a post-pandemic world. They're a way to get around while still remaining socially-distant.

"For the long term health of cities, their residents and the planet, cities should adjust policies to discourage car use and support the growth and use of micromobility," Gardner said.

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