Is America Headed for a Post-Coronavirus Traffic Apocalypse?
America’s eerily empty highways could soon become the site of apocalyptic gridlock as people start returning to work but keep avoiding the crowded buses and trains that once took them there.
Transit ridership plunged some 80 percent in major American cities during the peak of the coronavirus shutdowns, according to the transit app Moovit. Individual transit agencies in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have reported declines of 90 percent or more.
Passenger auto travel, by comparison, only fell about 60 percent nationwide between the end of February and mid-March, according to traffic analytics firm INRIX, and has since started to rebound. INRIX reports that traffic volumes are now back to 75 percent of their late February levels. Transit ridership, however, has seen a far less dramatic bounce back.
“People are starting to jump back faster into their cars than public transit,” said World Bank urban transportation specialist Leonardo Canon Rubiano, to The Washington Post. “Everyone is reassessing how much they need to move, even beyond the virus.”
That same Post story included interviews with commuters from around the world who have expressed concern about taking transit in a world where businesses are open but COVID-19 is an ongoing concern.
If a lot of these riders end up switching over to driving, there’s the potential for major spikes in travel times for some cities.
“If you have a growth in the number of cars in the roadway and not significant changes to the supply of the network, more cars on the road may correspond to longer travel times,” says Dan Work, an associate professor of civil engineering at Vanderbilt University.
Using American Community Survey data from the Census Bureau, Work and his fellow researchers have estimated the impact on travel times in different American metro areas if riders and carpoolers switched to single-occupancy vehicles.
They estimate that daily travel times would increase by 20 minutes in San Francisco and 14 minutes in New York if a quarter of those area’s 2018 transit riders and carpoolers switched to driving alone. If three-quarters of transit riders made that switch, travel times would increase by 80 and 68 minutes respectively.
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