COVID-19 has upended transportation behavior as we knew it, centralizing mobility’s mission on one thing: fulfilling essential needs that keep civilization functioning.
There’s no concrete timeline for society’s recovery from the crisis. It’s become clear that the recovery, shaped by complex health and economic variables, won’t be a binary switch back to normal.
But it’s certain that in the not-too-distant future, the pandemic will abate and society will start to rejuvenate. As COVID-19 wanes, essential connectivity will remain central to mobility’s mission, but the scope of the required connectivity will evolve to incorporate a broader array of socioeconomic needs. Mobility can also address geometric, environmental, and equity challenges beyond just those the coronavirus has brought us, helping make the recovery sustainable.
We’ll spend the next several weeks looking ahead to this recovery, describing how transportation demand management (TDM) – an arsenal of tools within our control like public messaging, space utilization, community shaping, and user fee structuring that help people make transportation decisions – might help shape post-pandemic mobility and life.
The world has changed, but the anatomy of a transportation decision remains the same
Though transportation behavior looks so different today than it did before the virus hit, three interrelated personal decisions that shape people’s trips – if, where, and how to go – remain as follows:
If people go: This decision weighs the payoff of a potential trip – like salary from a job, food and supplies from a store, or the enjoyment of an evening out on the town – against the price, time, stress, risk exposure, and other costs of getting there.
Where and when people go: To an extent this is an individual, free decision, but societal, economic, and life realities like housing affordability, work and school activities, or grocery store locations often influence and shape these choices.
How people go: People typically choose between three basic modes of regional mobility:
- Public transportation, such as buses, trains, or ferries.
- Car-based transportation, including driving oneself or riding in someone else’s vehicle
- Active transportation such as bikes, scooters, or one’s own two feet.
These modes, of course, are both variant and integrated, and things beyond physical performance – like changing cultures and technologies – affect how we perceive them. But aggregation of classic choices like “should I take the train or drive?” remain central to defining a transportation network.
What might post-crisis TDM look like, and why does it matter?
Due to COVID-19, would-be trips are largely not happening right now. Transit lines and other infrastructure are still operational, serving essential trips, but overwhelmingly it’s that first decision, of whether or not to go somewhere at all, that’s defining what mobility currently looks like.
Once recovery starts to take shape, people will inevitably start taking more trips again, and increased bustle of some sort will symbolize society’s re-emergence.
But it’s an open question as to whether people will choose where, when, and how they go in the same manner they did before. And if those choices’ aggregation results in congested roads and polluted air, the ensuing accessibility, health, and environmental consequences would not only threaten the recovery’s stability, but also exacerbate other significant challenges we face.
This is where TDM comes in.
For example, COVID-19 has hit U.S. transit employees hard, with more than 80 dead in New York and workers from Detroit to DC scared for their lives. These tragic developments demonstrate the importance of onboard sanitation, hygiene, and physical distancing to public transportation safety during this time.
Such safeguards work, as results in places like Seoul and Hong Kong – as well as in stateside locales like San Diego – make clear. But though there’s no proof that buses and trains are spreading the coronavirus, transit opponents are trying to deepen auto-dependence by instilling virus-based fear.
Thus, we’ll explore how transit agencies might consider TDM-based approaches to their messaging that help make facts louder than misinformation. Furthermore, many agencies have waived bus fares and switched to rear-door boarding to physically distance vehicle operators from riders; we’ll look at the benefits and challenges transit agencies might weigh when considering whether to sustain this long-term.
Also, during the crisis many organizations have successfully carried out traditionally in-person work functions remotely, presenting cost-saving opportunities to consolidate office space and cut back on commuting. However, many job tasks have to be done in person. And some people who do have the option to telework may yearn for the interaction and collaboration of an office environment, especially after this extended period of physical isolation.
We’ll explore TDM strategies that could synthesize these competing goals, such as employer permissions like continuing telework arrangements and flexible work hours, along with land use approaches that encourage more co-working facilities and other gathering places in residential neighborhoods.
And active transportation has proven a wild card during the pandemic, with trails packed and streets around the world opening to people. In the early days of the outbreak when society was still open, people looked to two-wheelers and their own two feet to avoid enclosed commutes. Essential workers continue to do this – and, in some cases, have received free access to bikes and other person-sized vehicles – but now, many people are just seeking safe ways to spend time outdoors.
But as with transit, certain interests are using unconfirmed fears about coronavirus spread in an effort to curtail biking, walking, and running. Furthermore, empty roads, though inviting at first glance to cyclists and walkers, have encouraged drivers to speed and crash more, elevating the threat to people not in cars.
Accordingly, local leaders might look to TDM to help make these new trips a sustained part of economic and societal recovery. We’ll look at the roles spatial strategies like protected bike lanes and open streets, along with other nudges like employer cash-out programs and shower facilities at offices, could play.
How TDM could shape a region’s post-coronavirus mobility
TDM strategies have the most impact when people have many options of getting around. The national capital region where we’re based will provide important insight on coronavirus-recovery transportation behavior given that people here have lots of mobility choices, all with their own complexities.
During the coming weeks we’ll look at the following aspects of TDM, using examples from our region – and from around the country and world – to explore strategies to consider during the recovery:
- Messaging: how sustainable transportation providers can reassure users and establish themselves as an essential part of a renewed society
- Spacing: how people can have room to move and resume their lives
- Shaping: how travel patterns can reflect and respond to redefined life needs
- Pricing: how transportation user fees might align with our re-emerging society and economy
Given the sobering fluidity of the COVID-19 situation, we know that the ongoing pandemic and society’s eventual recovery from it will be an evolving, difficult-to-predict process. But we are committed to adapting and providing TDM-based guidance that will help mobility navigate this storm.