Coronavirus

Is America Headed for a Post-Coronavirus Traffic Apocalypse?

Substantial numbers of people returning to work, but avoiding the buses and trains that took them there, could see urban travel speeds grind to a halt.

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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.

"The peak of rush hour in the Manhattan grid below 59th Street averages between 5 and 6 miles per hour" before the pandemic, Alex Armlovich, an urban policy expert with the Manhattan Institute, tells Reason. "If we tried to squeeze more simultaneous [vehicles] at the same time, you could see that speed fall to 3 miles per hour."At those speeds, Armlovich says, some drivers might end up parking in a garage and walking the last few miles of their commute.

Not all cities face such dire consequences, says Baruch Feigenbaum, the senior managing director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website).

It's important to separate New York and San Francisco "from places like Atlanta and Paducah, [Kentucky]" says Feigenbaum, where people rely on transit far less. "A switch there is not going to have that big of an impact."

The Vanderbilt study estimates daily travel times in cities like Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, which have moderately high shares of transit commuters, would only see travel time increases of a couple of minutes.

Even in those cities that do have high levels of transit usage, Feigenbaum says, the fears of a post-coronavirus traffic apocalypse could be overblown. Some people, he notes, don't own cars or can't afford them, and will therefore not be able to make the switch immediately. Those that do might be traveling to areas of the city that have spare road capacity.

On top of all of this is the potential for millions of former commuters to work from home for the foreseeable future. That could mean traffic levels won't hit their pre-pandemic peak, even if a lot of transit riders do end up becoming motorists.

But in a world where people remain wary of transit and work from home arrangements don't absorb huge numbers of commuters, some cities will have to consider major policy overhauls.

Congestion pricing is a solution both Feigenbaum and Armlovich recommend. This would involve charging motorists a variable toll on certain roadways that would rise or fall depending on congestion levels.

The hope is that this would moderate traffic flows by encouraging people to travel during off-peak hours, while allowing those who have to travel during rush hour to pay a price to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic.

I-66 in northern Virginia has a congestion-priced toll lane. New York is in the process of implementing its own version of congestion pricing which would charge drivers a fee for entering Manhattan south of 60th Street.

Another option for cities would be deregulating micro-mobility services like Bird, Lime, or Jump that allow people to rent dockless electric scooters and bicycles off the street via a smartphone app.

"Cities took this incredibly draconian regulatory approach to the evil private companies who are trying to help people move around by non-car means. They put special taxes on micro-mobility devices, they were slow to add new infrastructure," says Armlovich.

This includes the two cities that would be hardest hit by a sudden surge in vehicle traffic.

San Francisco sent cease-and-desist letters to scooter companies when they first started operating in the city, and even impounded their vehicles. The city later allowed some companies to keep operating, but only after they agreed to onerous permitting conditions.

New York had banned electric scooters and bikes until April of this year, when they were legalized as part of the state's budget deal. Still, scooters remain banned in Manhattan (although the city can opt to change that).

The smaller amount of space that these "active transport" vehicles need would make them an ideal alternative for former transit riders in space-constrained areas like Manhattan, says Armlovich

"The ceiling on the amount of road space we can add and the number of people you can move per square foot of road space per single occupancy vehicle substantially favors active transport for people who are avoiding mass transit," he tells Reason. "I think that suggests we should be looking at reallocating street space to those active transport uses."

Feigenbaum is more skeptical.

"Biking and e-scooters are not substituting for car travel because they're typically for relatively short distances," he says, arguing reallocating street space from cars to bikes and electric scooters will mostly serve to hurt suburban commuters who are traveling into the city from far away.

In some sense, this debate is premature. We don't know how much of a risk transit will pose to spreading coronavirus, particularly as more people wear masks and transit agencies continue their stepped-up sanitation efforts. COVID-19 is all but extinct in ultra-dense, transit-dependent Hong Kong, for instance.

Perhaps some mix of universal mask-wearing and fatigue over social distancing will see people take transit at the same rate they did pre-pandemic. The less they do, however, the more some cities will have to consider out-of-the-box solutions to allow for urban life without endless gridlock.

NEXT: The Legal Academy, Episode 1: Akhil Amar

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  1. Not to be offensive, but the people who were taking public transit to work before are likely sitting at home right now enjoying augmented un-employment benefits.

    Once that’s done they’ll be back on the bus like normal.

    1. This entire debate is premature [but it sounds like a great fear point for spending politicians to make new promises of expenditures in return for votes]. There’s no idea how many of those who were previously office employees but now working at home will continue to stay that way. How many businesses will simply be gone, and new start-ups take their place running out of the bedroom, garage, etc? People have now figured out how to work at home so the grunt work and pulling the trigger is done. And for many, it’s not as ugly as they thought it would be. The small inconveniences will be weighed against long commutes, the garage parking and gas, insurance costs, and other costs of working outside the home.

      Then there’s the push to relocate. If transit times go way up, many will find new jobs, move to where the commute is closer, or just leave the city entirely. People who have spent 30 minutes traveling into the city will not tolerate a 2 hour commute in its place for long. It will take a while but leaving market conditions alone, it will all level out.

    2. So a V-shaped recovery in CO2 emissions then

      1. With the ongoing glut of the oil markets, it might even be somewhat “checkmark” shaped. Cheap gas combined with a feeling the cramming into a metal tube with a bunch of strangers every day being fundamentally dangerous (in an additional way to the previous level of inherent risk) might get a number of car-owners to quit avoiding traffic. Parking costs will probably keep people riding in placed like NYC, but the L.A. rail system takes so long to do some commutes that sitting in traffic for 60 minutes would only cost a commuter 5-10 minutes (if I had to commute from where i live near LAX to DTLA, the 45-50 minutes of traffic would save me 20 minutes each way over what’s been my experience on Metro).

  2. The moment a story hits the wires about some unfortunate woman pulled off get bicycle or Vespa and raped, ridership will plummet and people will hop right back into their cars.

  3. Oh, and fuck New York City. I’ve only been there a couple of times, despite living barely two hours away, and I don’t get the mystique whatsoever. The place is a shithole and a dump. If someone reduced it to a pane of glass, the world would be better off.

    1. I hate cities and even the tourist landmarks in NYC were dirty and disappointing. I don’t understand what about cities appeals to people

      1. I don’t mind all cities—Philly has a certain charm, if you can ignore the stench of the sewers and the creeping claustrophobia—but New York City is just egregiously ugly. It’s a depressing as Gary, Indiana, and as devoid of redeeming qualities at Baltimore. And that’s saying a lot.

    2. I actually think it’s pretty fun to live here (NYC), at least before everything was closed down. Professionally, there was a lot going on and tons of networking opportunities. There were also lots of cultural opportunities, plus old friends often transited through here, meaning I got to reconnect.

      Obviously there are many bad things, especially now, but living here at least was fun.

      1. More power to you. I don’t see it at all. Manhattan is filthy and rundown. The Bronx is monotonous. No matter what you do, you’re always in someone’s way. You can keep it.

        1. Fair enough, different strokes for different folks. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so it is oddly refreshing for me.

          1. I grew up in the rural Midwest, though not quite the middle of nowhere, and find it suffocating. It’s odd how differently we turn out.

          2. I love NYC. Been maybe 15 times since the 80s.

    3. i’m with you. i grew up half an hour from ‘the city’. every time i went there i hated it. nothing but concrete and noise and a-holes.

      my good friend out here (AZ)….last year his BIG vacation was a week to NYC. I’m like “WHY WOULD YOU VACATION THERE?”

      my dream vacation is an uncrowded beach or wooded area

  4. fucking city full of Karens driving 10mph < speed limits all over Dallas now … back under your beds!

  5. “it’s important to seperat new york and San Francisco”
    This is true in every aspect of life, weather it be traffic data, or votes…

    1. tectonic plates…

  6. I can only comment on DC traffic as far as what I actually experience. Traffic has been rising because people are going out for leisure. This is obvious because of the times where volume is higher.
    The DC metro system is junk. The ridership is mostly split between high earning professionals and poor people with few to no other options. The poor people will continue using it because, again, they have few choices. For the most part, the professionals will continue working from home and possibly go into the office part time. Traffic and parking in DC is so bad that these sorts will avoid going in with any excuse if they’re looking at returning to a long cumbersome commute. A majority of my customers work in DC and not one plans to go back to the office full time in the foreseeable future.
    Anecdotes are unreliable, but this is what I see and a short rationale. It’d be nice for the writers to consider some of this

    1. Don’t forget that WMATA has decided to shutdown Metrorail access in parts of Arlington and Fairfax until September.

      1. https://www.wmata.com/schedules/maps/upload/2019-System-Map-COVID-19-stations-FINAL.pdf

        Closures all over DMV. Given how awful the metro is, this could save your life by discouraging you from riding it!

        1. Metro ridership has been tanking for years now, especially with the track repairs, expansion of teleworking and fare hikes Only the dorks who work in downtown D.C. still take it routinely and of course it’s convenient for Nats games. They’re still running empty trains though and the WMATA staff are all collecti their paychecks, so it will probably go bankrupt in a year or two. I would also say that traffic in NoVa at least even before COVID-19 is not as bad as it was 10-15 years ago when more people took Metro.

          1. Only the dorks who work in downtown D.C. government employees who get a monthly $270 transit subsidy still take it routinely

            it will probably go bankrupt in a year or two
            It now has dedicated DMV funding. I don’t recall if the Democrats lifted the cap after taking over Virginia.

  7. Not much traffic with 20% of the population standing in soup lines and another 20% able to afford non-soup line food only if they don’t buy any gasoline.

  8. Working downtown was fun when I was a lot younger…for a few years at least. But if you have a family, it can be a big pain. And living in burbs and working in city and using public transit can be a nightmare…like when the train breaks down in the middle of nowhere for like 3 hours and you really got to pee. If you dig it, then you live there, but don’t expect the rest of us to subsidize your lifestyle.

    1. Don’t be ridiculous. “The rest of us” will continue to subsidize the transit lifestyle as long as we continue to elect politicians who are owned by transit consultants, transit contractors and transit unions.

  9. I thought everyone was going to work from home from now on?

    1. I’m sure the Reason Institute will figure out a way to toll those motherfuckers too.

  10. No one will notice the difference in LA.

    1. Taking 80 minutes to drive the 16 miles that used to take 75 wouldn’t really register with most locals.

      God help us all if the State/Local Govt around L.A. tried to run with the idea of “congestion pricing” tolls on the freeways,m though. Garcetti wouldn’t take long to decide to baseline the toll levels to the period from 3:30-4:45 AM on weeknights, and charge a few tiers of “congestion” tolls whenever the traffic got denser than that; he has already set the goal of getting everyone in L.A. to give up their cars, the last thing we should give him is another tool to cause misery for the local drivers.

  11. The leftist freakout over Trump taking hydroxychloroquine has to be one of their more hilarious beclownings.
    “It’s dangerous!”
    “He doesn’t believe in science!”
    “Two studies showed it wasn’t effective!”
    “He’s fat and I have to pray now!”
    And just because Trump said he was hopeful about it a few weeks ago, leftists now have (added) an all consuming hatred of… a chemical

    1. Damn
      Wrong article

      1. This is Reason, it doesn’t matter – – – – – – – –

    2. Trump can OD on hydroxychloroquine if he wants to, and I will not cry in my beer…

      What pisses me off, is, in cases like hydroxychloroquine, Dear Leader says he wants it? FDA falls over backwards to accommodate Dear Leader! I want a fuckin’ CHEAP PLASTIC FLUTE to blow on, w/o a prescription? I am a peon, and the FDA couldn’t give one shit in a billion quadrillion years, about me!

      The VAST superiority of The Emperor is what pisses me off! We don’t have rule of law; we have a Trumptatorshit!

      To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

      1. “I am a peon”

        Yes, we know.

        1. And R Mac is Master of Space, Time, Dimension, and Mind-Reading… In her own mind, at least! Yes, we know that, you have made it obvious!

          How is your tin-foil hat and your tin-foil hate working today, by the way?

  12. At those speeds, Armlovich says, some drivers might end up parking in a garage and walking the last few miles of their commute.

    The roads will be so crowded nobody will drive on them!

    Traffic congestion is one of those self-limiting problems that urban planners (and just about everybody else) just don’t get when you look at it the other way around and realize it’s also a self-created problem. If you’ve got a congested 6-lane highway, adding a travel lane each way should reduce congestion by a third, right? No, it shouldn’t – if the road is congested, drivers try to avoid the congestion as best they can by taking alternate routes and if you reduce the congestion those drivers will no longer take the alternate routes. And yet, every damn time they add travel lanes to a highway to reduce congestion and the road is quickly just as congested as before, the planners are dumbfounded as to how to explain the paradox.

    The idea that traffic congestion is going to be an intolerable problem is just as silly an idea – if it’s not tolerable people won’t tolerate it. If you’re stuck in massive traffic jams every day, obviously you don’t find the problem intolerable since you’re tolerating it. Of course, people stuck in traffic jams bitch about the traffic and damn few of them consider themselves to be traffic – it’s the other traffic that they’re bitching about. Once they wise up and realize that they’re the traffic they’re bitching about, the solution to the problem becomes obvious – stop being the traffic. (No offense to Steve Winwood.)

    1. There’s more unused capacity on highways than you can shake a stick at! The problem is the travel lanes are crowded with vehicles that have empty seats.

  13. Over at Justitia, Joseph Margulies says that small business owners have a moral right to reopen their doors, “openly and without fear of retribution from the state. Not because their work is essential to the public, but because it is essential to them.”

    As he puts it:

    I do not see how anyone in his position can be expected to stand idly by—literally—while his children go hungry and his family loses their home. And do not underestimate the risk that this might happen.

    1. You’d think wantonly destroying people’s livelihoods would be kind of a big deal but apparently a majority of the citizenry think it’s just swell.

      1. Your idealism is adorable, peasant.

    2. Doncha know bidness owners are rich! They can afford it.

  14. Add to the increased use of cars, San Francisco is closing streets to vehicle traffic so people can gambol!
    I am not joking.

    1. They’re closing the streets so people can frolic? What is the occasion?

      1. Sounds like a gay old time!

    2. Do they have rickshaws yet?

      More than enough homeless around to pull them

    3. In Seattle they closed off 20 miles of streets cuz of “the pandemic”. They quickly decided to make it permanent. Go figure.

  15. “Is America Headed for a Post-Coronavirus Traffic Apocalypse?”

    The correct answer is “yes”. Yes, and no one will survive the Post-Coronavirus Traffic Apocalypse–unless the government makes us stay home. That’s pretty much the solution to all of our problems. Just lock yourself in your home, and everything will be alright.

    1. If only we could create a traffic vaccine.

      1. Here you go: Congestion pricing.

  16. Well, in the city I live in, traffic is gradually returning to normal, but it still has some ways to go. But we won’t get the full traffic until the University opens up again, and I have no idea how long that might take. There are still far too many idiots talking about keeping classes on-line only for years to come.

    But as for public transport– well, the buses are owned by the University, and they haven’t been running since St Patrick’s Day. Really sucks for those of us who can’t afford a car.

    Anyway, traffic jams really only occur in this town during football games or graduation.

  17. Haven’t noticed a change. Oh that’s right, I don’t live on the coasts where everything of importance happens.

    The real America kept going while the rich white liberal cities of LA, NYC, DC just hid out.

    1. South Jersey was almost ghostly quiet for a few weeks, but traffic has been ever so slowly increasing over the past couple of weeks.

  18. Hmm… best to stay in lock down les a single person dies due to traffic.

  19. I blame Matt Welch

  20. “The Vanderbilt study estimates daily travel times in cities like Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, which have moderately high shares of transit commuters, would only see travel time increases of a couple of minutes.”

    they’re smoking something. if a significant proportion of DC metro area carpoolers, vanpoolers, bus & train riders, and don’t forget slugs, were to decide to maintain their distance by driving solo, it would add a whole lot more than a “few minutes”. that would also double down on the failure of the express lanes to convince folks to carpool in significant numbers. the largest current user group is work trucks – the tolls are a business expense & often a tax write-off. for the vast majority of others, they are simply unaffordable – the characterization of express as “Lexus” lanes was and remains correct. the second largest group is the few that can afford to drive the lanes and pay the freight. the remaining group that currently uses the express lanes would not only leave it if they wanted to maintain their social distances, but would enter the main lanes in mostly individual vehicles. that’s a lot more impact than a “few minutes” worth.

  21. Glad to see Reason is part of the lockdown patrol. Hilarious that faggots like AmSoc get to parade around here like sashaying freaks espousing their demented ideology. But don’t worry I am sure the killing fields won’t happen here. Polyushko-polye bitches.

  22. How are all bus riders magically going to switch over to cars? The only reasons people take buses is (1) they don’t have cars in the first place, or (2) they can’t park the cars. How is any of that going to change? Maybe ‘reason’ is going to give away free cars, gas, and insurance? Oh wait, insurance is probably some gubbermint swindle.

    1. That is essentially my primary argument. People who can drive in will typically drive (though some do just drive to metro or bus stops.) The fact that so many of these people have been teleworking and can continue doing so is a limiting factor on this idea of a traffic apocalypse.

  23. “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.

    Damn, this is incredibly insightful.

  24. Manhattan is not “America”.

  25. “If we tried to squeeze more simultaneous [vehicles] at the same time, you could see that speed fall to 3 miles per hour.”At those speeds, Armlovich says, some drivers might end up parking in a garage and walking the last few miles of their commute.

    And some of those drivers might end up keeling over from trying to walk a few miles wearing their belly fat and masks. BAN CARS!

  26. Congestion pricing seems like it would be most helpful in conjunction with flexible work hours. MANDATE THAT AS WELL.

  27. Don’t forget, you aren’t IN traffic, you ARE traffic.

  28. My theory is this was all artificially driven by top men (got that Christian?) and because of this fact, things will revert back quickly once people (most of them anyway) shake off their inner-sheep, take off the masks and realize Coronazilla isn’t going to kill us all.

    I could be wrong of course.

    I was watching a local Chinese channel last night and they had a report from various countries. Watching all those places with people in masks was depressing. What kind of life is that?

    You walk around in fear of a virus never seeing people’s faces?

    Awful existence if you ask me and I don’t want that for us here in North America or the West as a whole.

  29. Having lived in San Francisco and recently moved out, I can tell you that one of the main reasons why traffic is so bad is because the progressive city planners have intentionally made it WORSE.

    All through the city, busy traffic lanes have been replaced by bus-only lanes, protected bike lanes, and bus stops in the middle of the street. The major street that cuts through downtown (Market Street) has been completely closed to private cars in what used to be its busiest area.

    They take busy streets and make them even more congested, and use that as an excuse to force more people towards mass transit.

    While there are some good things about San Francisco (the job market, the weather, the scenic views), as a car enthusiast, I’m glad I moved away.

  30. It’s a step in the right direction that transit advocates are now promoting scooters alongside bicycles as a solution to pervasive urban congestion. While small electric scooters are a wonderful ‘last mile’ solution, municipalities all over the world incentivize motorcycles and motor scooters as a congestion reduction strategy, so why aren’t our vehicles included in this discussion?

    I live and work in transit deserts in and around NYC, and I need to transport myself and my tools to the far flung places around town where I work as a freelance sculptor in the film and TV industry. I happily commute on my fuel efficient, congestion reducing motorcycle. My co-workers drive giant SUVs and pick-up trucks. Motorcycles and motor scooters reduce traffic exponentially, and you can park six two-wheeled vehicles in the space taken by one car. Our vehicles are, on average, more than twice as fuel efficient as the average auto, and that’s without factoring electric vehicles into the equation. As a bonus, my motorcycle weighs under 500 lbs, which is 1/6 the weight of an economy car. Many smaller motorcycles and motor scooters weigh far less. That reduces wear and tear on city infrastructure. Finally, motorcycles are appropriate transportation for anyone who otherwise would need to travel in a car. We can take them on the highway, and we can carry a certain amount of cargo.

    I wear a full face motorcycle helmet whenever I ride. I never imagined that it would afford me virus protection as well as collision protection. Increasing motorcycle ridership is an obvious solution to urban traffic ills which will now be scarily expanded due to corona virus fears. Incentivising two-wheeled vehicles means free parking at all muni-meters, reduced bridge and tunnel tolls and an exemption from upcoming congestion pricing, just as they do in London and every other European city where congestion pricing has been successfully imposed.

    We’re going to have to find all sorts of creative solutions to urban transportation issues in the coming months. Now that average people will be far less likely to take the subway, our own urban planners should be promoting motorcycles as congestion reducing, virus safe transportation.

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