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COVID-19 Reshaped the Work and Mobility Landscape in U.S. Cities

A new report by StreetLight Data underscores how traffic patterns across U.S. downtown areas have been reshaped by the pandemic. Remote work and changes in travel preferences offer new challenges for urban planners and transit agencies.

A large freeway in San Diego full of traffic.
The COVID-19 pandemic upended decades of transportation and city planning across the U.S., prompting experts to rethink the role of public transit and how to maintain vibrant downtown areas without a steady flow of commuters and office workers.

Specifics vary from place to place, but in a lot of cities, pandemic-related traffic patterns set by the remote work movement remain a reality, as white-collar office workers adjust to more flexible schedules. This generally translates into less commuting into downtown areas, both via car and transit options.

Fewer workers means fewer folks going out for lunch, fewer stops at cafes and generally less economic activity. These COVID-19 pandemic-prompted changes have led to not only a glut of unused office space, but a general decline in the vitality of cities.

“What’s scary for many U.S. downtowns is the ‘return to normal’ for office occupancy has stalled,” said Martin Morzynski, senior vice president of marketing at StreetLight Data, a transportation analytics firm, which developed a recent report on downtown congestion in the top 10 U.S. cities.

Morzynski went on to note how data from keycard swipes — a measure of office activity — has not been on the rise through the summer and fall, “placing more pressure on cities to get creative about bringing non-work activity, as well as attractive residential options, downtown to bring back economic growth.”

In Seattle, the September headcount in downtown office buildings was only 36 percent of 2019 levels, said Greg Spotts, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, speaking on a panel last month at the American Public Transit Association (APTA) TRANSform Conference. And not unrelated, transit ridership in Seattle is down about 40 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

“But the number of cars coming in and out of the downtown core is down by only 7 percent. So there’s been a significant mode shift,” said Spotts, a sign that the workers and others who are coming downtown are coming increasingly by car.

Keycard data from Kastle Systems shows office buildings in the top 50 business districts still below 50 percent occupancy by August 2022, compared to pre-COVID occupancy. Generally, the office workers with the longest commutes were the ones more likely to work from home, according to StreetLight Data.

What seems clear across all areas is the decrease in morning traffic, generally 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. In Chicago, downtown traffic levels in 2022 are only half of what they were in 2019. In Houston, traffic is at 64 percent of what it was in 2019, while in Phoenix, morning traffic is at 69 percent. However, when looking at midday or afternoon traffic, levels are not that far off of where they were before the pandemic. In San Diego, midday is back up to 93 percent of 2019 levels, according to StreetLight Data. All of these stats indicate that those workers coming into the office are actually coming in later and staying fewer hours, an indication of more flexible work schedules than those before COVID-19.

This is the kind of data that can offer insights to transit planners as they devise new approaches to mobility in a post-pandemic society.

“One message is smarter, data-driven transit scheduling to accommodate changing behaviors. Office workers are choosing to go in fewer days a week and at off-peak hours, which creates a need for more frequent service outside of traditional peak hours,” said Morzynski.

The message for cities as they look to more fully recover business activity, said Morzynski, is to break away from the old 9-to-5 work patterns and explore opportunities for workers to come in during non-peak times.

“Encouraging workers to come in during non-peak hours, as well as encouraging leisure visitation to the city core outside of peak hours, are European tactics that may have credence in the U.S.,” said Morzynski.

In downtown San Diego, a district developed as a destination for nightlife and tourism, traffic activity is nearly unchanged from pre-COVID levels, due in part to the influx of visitors, taking the place of office workers.

Across the country in Miami, a COVID-19 Travel Behavior Trend Analysis, completed earlier this year, by the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization (Miami-Dade TPO) showed a different scenario, with traffic volume and transit ridership gradually increasing across the region with the number of workers telecommuting decreasing. By September 2021, traffic volumes in the county had largely returned to 2019 levels. And ridership on public transit was up 20 percent in July 2022 compared to a year earlier, according to county statistics.

That said, by mid-April 2021, the number of people working from home was still 20 percent higher than before the pandemic, said Aileen Bouclé, executive director of Miami-Dade TPO.

Those workers tend to want more transportation amenities in their home neighborhoods where they’re spending more time, an indication of how mobility and transit infrastructure may be reshaped by changing work patterns.

“We found an increased demand for bicycle, pedestrian, micromobility needs that we would want to see developed in transit-oriented communities,” said Bouclé during the CoMotion MIAMI conference in April.
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.