What is the Post-Pandemic Future of Transit in the U.S.?

by Sean Batty, ASLA

A busy street in Portland, Oregon with pedestrians, buses, and trams
image: Sean Batty

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on U.S. transportation. Remote work and unemployment dramatically reduced commuting trips for all transportation modes. Significant declines in transit ridership across the country has been the subject of many headlines. As vaccination rates increase and businesses (hopefully) re-open, what does the future hold for public transit?

U.S. transportation systems, including transit, are designed around the home-to-work commute. This is true despite that fact that most trips do not originate from a home and end at work. Travel to work trips are more likely to occur during “peak demand” or rush hour. The rise in telecommuting has made these early morning/late afternoon trips susceptible to long term (and possibly permanent) decline.

Mass vaccinations and declines in infection rates have eased travel restrictions and social distancing mandates in many states. As a result, travel demand has rebounded to near post-COVID levels relatively quickly. Experts are predicting that this trend will continue after the pandemic is truly over, unless the shift toward telecommuting persists.

In 2018, the percentage of workers telecommuting was around 6% nationally, or triple the rate of telecommuting in the 1980s. Technological advances since the 1980s have made telecommuting possible even if not all were on-board with the practice. Companies reluctant to allow telecommuting pre-COVID suddenly were forced to allow staff to work from home. The extended duration of the pandemic habituated remote work for many. This, combined with advancements in teleworking technologies, potential benefits to the corporate bottom line, and increased employee satisfaction and retention, has caused some experts to predict a more significant and lasting adoption of telework. The result may be a ‘flattening of the peak’ volume during historically traditional rush hours. [See “A Little More Remote Work Could Change Rush Hour A Lot,” by Emily Badger for The New York Times.]

Without continued focused and intentional policy interventions, the impact of increased telework on transit is likely to be mixed. Some past-transit users may permanently adopt telecommuting causing a reduction in peak hour congestion that may make some transit faster, more reliable and attractive to new riders.

Continued sustained policy efforts to level the playing field between transit and single occupancy vehicles (SOV) will be required post-pandemic. This can be accomplished by revealing and recoupling the many hidden subsidies and externalities of driving and rebalancing the allocation of rights-of-way (ROWs) to effect a more equitable mode distribution. Without those efforts, it is likely that flattened peak hour traffic volumes will only attract more driving over the long term (a.k.a. induced demand), thereby negating any benefits telecommuting could have provided to ease peak travel demand.

At its root, peak hour congestion remains a symptom of a larger inefficient land use system. Transit is a critical entrée in the menu of robust alternatives to SOV driving. However, at some level transit only treats a symptom of the actual problem. The cure—or perhaps, the vaccine, to use a more timely metaphor—will be an evolving human habitat. Such an evolution would involve a transition to sustainable mixed-use spaces that decrease auto-trip demand while providing safe, environmentally sound, and equitable opportunities for living, working, learning, and playing.

Landscape architects will continue advocate and play a critical role in the design of transportation systems that prioritize all travel modes, such as transit, biking, and walking, while simultaneously ensuring the spaces being created are transit-supportive. This is the key to the long-term viability of transit as well as to long-term equity, sustainability, and economic vitality.

Sean Batty, ASLA, is the Director, Design and Construction Delivery, for TriMet Engineering’s Construction & Planning Division in Portland, Oregon. He also serves an officer for ASLA’s Transportation Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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