Commuters Need Transportation Resiliency: NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #606

Most Americans drive to work because of the freedom that this mobility choice provides. Well, that and other suitable transportation options are limited in many locales. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to limit car ownership while commuters are urged to take transit, rideshare, walk, and ride bikes/scooters. The COVID-19 crisis, though, seems to have stopped that idea in its tracks. In many places, transit ridership may never again approach past peak activity. If so, the long-term implications for transportation funding become even more complicated, and so does everyone’s daily commute.

In a recent NewGeography.Com post, author Randal O’Toole illuminated the idea of transportation resiliency. He quoted a new study from accounting giant KPMG that predicts commuting to work will decrease up to 20 percent due to the after-effects of the pandemic, one of which is the greatly expanded use of telecommuting. Shopping trips by vehicle will likely decline up to 30 percent due to increased online shopping.

Another KPMG prediction: 43 percent of former transit riders do not plan to return to buses, subways, and trolleys, and most who don’t work from home will likely turn to cars. If this happens, driving will increase by close to five billion vehicle miles per year in America alone, which will impact those of us who already commute by car every day.

O’Toole writes that transit is far less resilient than driving. At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in April, the Federal Highway Administration claims that driving fell 42 percent compared to last year. Transit ridership fell by 84 percent.

Boston-based reporter Spencer Buell always loved the fact that he and his wife could take transit everywhere. The city has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, an effect heightened by narrow, winding streets downtown. A third of Boston households do not own a car. Buell and his wife live in East Boston, which is separated by the rest of the city due to the harbor, so biking to work is not a viable alternative. Now because of public health concerns, Buell cannot bear the idea of riding transit. He and his wife have decided to purchase a car to take control of their transportation options.

According to a CarGuru Survey from June, 22 percent of respondents claim they plan to purchase or have already purchased a car even though that had not been their plan before the pandemic.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote this headline recently: The Pandemic Crushed vehicle Sales in the Bay Area. Then People Flocked to ‘COVID Cars.’  Immunology researcher Jeanmarie Gonzalez used to commute from Oakland to San Francisco. She recently bought a used car for her commute and said, “I’d rather drive than be on public transit multiple hours a day.” Gonzalez added that buying a car was a tough call, “I couldn’t afford a hybrid, and I didn’t have a place to plug in an electric car, so my options were limited. I prioritize human health in general over environmental issues, even though the environment is very important to me.”

In New York City, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles reported that in July, residents registered nearly 40,000 cars—the highest amount recorded for any month in recent years. Many anti-car advocates have been claiming that NYC would see a coming “Carmageddon.” Mayor Bill de Blasio urged residents in a recent news conference not to buy a car, “Cars are the past.” Streetsblog and other anti-car advocates are urging city officials to use the crisis as an opportunity to push for more open streets, road diets, bus and bike lanes.

But these other mobility-as-a-service options are not fail-proof. In late July, Revel Scooters pulled the plug on its service in NYC after two user deaths, including that of local TV reporter Nina Kapur. Micromobility devices can sometimes be dangerous due to the inexperience of users, inadequate protective gear, and lack of attention by other road users. In the end, microtransit also costs too much per user.

Ironically, even one of the most ardent anti-car advocates, Brooklyn, New York resident Doug Gordon says he and his family are thinking of purchasing a car to escape the city. He is one of the hosts of the podcast called War on Cars. (Imagine that!)

Transit and micromobility do not seem to have long-term transportation resiliency or adequate safety records. On the other hand, will everyday commuters be able to come to grips with even more traffic congestion?

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