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.]

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Net Zero Rights of Way?!

Lincoln Street MAX Station, with photovoltaic cells on shelter roofs image: ©2015 Bruce Forster Photography / Trimet
Lincoln Street MAX Station, with photovoltaic cells on shelter roofs
image: ©2015 Bruce Forster Photography / Trimet

Landscape Architects Can Break New Policy Ground with Our Legislators

Roxanne Blackwell, ASLA’s Director of Federal Government Affairs, presented a dynamite national legislative update to the ASLA Transportation Professional Practice Network (PPN) at the 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting in New Orleans. She reinforced that the input the profession provides to legislators is relevant, robust, broad, and has tremendous policy impact.

One of the most exciting parts of Roxanne’s report was what legislators asked of us: can we, as landscape architects, shape a federal policy for net zero roadways?

Many of us are familiar with the concept of net zero, especially in relation to buildings. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) continues to collaboratively advance net zero building, campus and neighborhood policy, standards, and resources and has defined a net zero energy building as follows: An energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy. Put another way, this means a building that produces as much energy as it uses on an annual basis from renewable sources. Further details are available in a September 16, 2015 article available on the DOE website.

This same Net Zero approach appears to be highly adaptable to public rights-of-way, and we as a profession can help make the case.

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