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

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.

Empty streets in New York City.
Empty streets in New York City.
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.

In a separate survey of VMT, KPMG concluded that continuing home-based work could reduce commuting by 70 billion to 140 billion miles per year, translating to a decline in current-level VMT of 2 percent to 5 percent per year. All told, when considering changes to daily commutes, shopping and other trips, VMT has the potential of falling more than 9 percent annually, according to KPMG figures.

This is an opportunity to revisit transportation policy, and how Americans engage with their city, said Ann Shikany, state and federal policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Our challenge now is to reimagine our cities as places where people can get where they need to go without polluting the air or struggling to keep up with car payments,” said Shikany. “This will require smart policies to provide people with environmentally friendly alternatives to driving, for example, fast transit and safe walking and biking infrastructure. We can both have a thriving economy with public health protections while also transitioning to smart transportation alternatives.”

Indeed, both Shikany and the KPMG report warn VMT could boomerang back to pre-pandemic levels or beyond if Americans abandon public transit in favor of driving alone, or abandon cities, opting for more suburban living.  

“People drove much less when the pandemic started and we locked down, but vehicle miles traveled have climbed back up in the ensuing months," said Shikany.

Some of the policy areas to consider, in light of the new transportation data, could point to altering transit operations and schedules so they are more in line with the patterns and destinations of critical workers, said Morzynski.

The research also presents new questions to consider, such as whether the sharp uptick in on-demand delivery and e-commerce is here to stay, and how to develop transportation planning to serve these demands. Also, what to make of migration, as urban dwellers give up expensive city apartments, opting for life in rural or small towns, now that many can essentially work from anywhere.

“They’re moving to other cities. And that’s the next thing that we really want to study,” Morzynski said, adding, StreetLight Data believes that “where you live is the biggest indicator of VMT.” 

“We definitely want to understand this massive American migration, which will have tremendous impact with people who are moving, changing their individual VMT footprints,” he added.

The report also explored bicycle use to get a better understanding of how enthusiastically Americans took to two-wheeled transportation during the pandemic, and whether those shifts are becoming actual trends. In cities like San Francisco and New York, cycling dropped during the pandemic as daily bike commuters stayed home.

In other locations, like parts of Southern California — which are steeped in car culture — cycling took off, but has since declined to nearly pre-pandemic levels. However, across the nation, biking was up 12 percent in July, compared to a year before.

“Even though some cities have given back some of their gains, the reality is, the remaining 65 or so metros are still significantly above where they were last year,” Morzynski said. “So certainly, some of that biking has stuck around. And the question is, to what extent are two, three, four months of habit forming, in fact, permanent-versus-not.” 

Anecdotal and actual research has shown cities are more enjoyable when there’s less driving, say researchers. 

“The air is cleaner; the streets are quieter. And cities worldwide are reclaiming some of the space given to cars and using it for outdoor restaurant seating, wider bike lanes and promenades,” Shikany said. “There is strong support for open streets. Recovery should not mean going back to the way things were before; we can make our cities better.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.