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People Plan to Drive More, Use Transit Less After COVID

People Plan to Drive More, Use Transit Less After COVID
By Gordon Chaffin • Issue #135 • View online

Americans’ driving levels quickly returned to normal levels after the March 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns but transit ridership hasn’t recovered beyond one-half previous ridership. (Image from UC-Davis 3 Revolutions Conference, March 2021)
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Americans’ driving levels quickly returned to normal levels after the March 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns. Transit ridership dropped to a quarter of previous levels and has remained below 50 percent of the past. Considering their post-vaccination habits, Americans express a greater desire to own cars. Ride-hailing and transit data show lower-income travelers changed their habits less than the wealthier — suggesting a growing equity gap in current and future transit and ride-hail usage. While active transportation — walking and biking — grew during COVID, it will take a serious policymaking shift for Americans to use those modes for commuting, rather than the discretionary, recreational trips of COVID times.
All of that is according to new research from the UC-Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. Dr. Giovanni Circella presented this research at UC-Davis 3 Revolutions Conference held virtually last week. ITS at UC-Davis thematically organizes its research into three different buckets of economy-wide revolutions in transportation: electrification, automation/self-driving, and shared mobility. They’re discussing many others to elevate to a fourth revolution, with information technology (i.e. remote work/e-commerce) as a candidate.
NOTE: These UC-Davis data support USF data from October 2020.
The presentation with this research is here on YouTube. The description:
“Dr. Giovanni Circella is the Director of the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at the University of California, Davis, and a Senior Research Engineer in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Circella’s research interests include travel behavior, travel demand modeling, travel survey methods, emerging transportation services, shared mobility, autonomous vehicles and policy analysis. His recent research has focused on the impacts of individual attitudes, land use features, information and communication technology (ICT), shared mobility and ridehailing (e.g. Lyft and Uber) on travel behavior and auto ownership, and the mobility patterns of specific population segments (e.g.“millennials”) and in various regions of the U.S., Europe, South America and the Middle East.”
As I reported last summer, lower-income residents seemed to be using ride-hail services to make essential trips where transit had been cut due to low ridership. Uber ride prices were surging in DC’s Ward 7+8 and in lower-income Maryland suburbs — Prince George’s County and eastern Montgomery County. The new UC-Davis research corroborates that inference. High-income survey respondents said their ride-hail trips dropped to 20% of normal, with middle-income hailing rides at down to 34% of normal. By contrast, low-income ride-hail users at 83% of normal. In other words, privileged users of our transportation system dropped ride-hailing as a discretionary expense while those with the least income use those high-priced rides for essential trips — including and especially where transit services get cut.
I have many friends and acquaintances — a demographic of urbanists skewed against driving — who nonetheless bought cars during COVID. You may have heard similar things from your friends. The New York Times did an article last fall explaining how frustrated new car buyers were trying to find street parking. These anecdotes are backed up by the UC-Davis data. In the midst of COVID, fewer survey respondents expressed willingness to live without a car — even if there were viable alternative transportation modes. That gels with reports from dealers and automakers showing rising demand for cars, especially used vehicles.
While total driving activity grew quickly back to 100% of pre-COVID levels, traffic congestion measures did not. During the research presentation, Dr. Circella of UC-Davis explained that’s probably because car trips are spread more evenly throughout the day. Traffic congestion occurs during periods of peak usage, especially the 8 AM and 5 PM hours on weekdays. Work from home continues, so the increased driving activity is largely discretionary trips of those virtual workers. Those discretionary trips are in the middle of the day and late evening.
One of my great frustrations is that America’s surface transportation system is designed to inconvenience the least car drivers during their short-duration commutes. We design roads for 8:30 AM and 5:30 PM. Nearly all of the traffic engineering formulas, design criteria charts, and funding applications make delays of a few minutes the KPI for systems we use 24/7/365.
In DC, my favorite example of this disgusting decision-making imbalance is Louisiana Avenue near the Capitol. It’s insanely wide and rarely has more than ten cars queued at a red light, even during rush hour. DDOT wants to add a beginner-friendly bike lane and median to increase safety for all users on Louisiana Ave. But, they don’t own the road; the Architect of the Capitol does, and AoC has by all accounts never been a willing partner on road safety.
Another good example of design-for-8AM myopia is Washington Street in Tempe, Arizona. This road connects Tempe with its urban anchor central Phoenix. Even with three-lane widths used for the light rail, there are still four and sometimes 5 vehicle lanes. I lived there for a year, rode the light rail every day, and never saw more than 20-30 cars queued at stoplights. A pedestrian crossing Washington mid-block a half-mile from the StreetView linked above was struck and killed by an Uber self-driving tester watching Hulu behind the wheel.
In mixed company, transportation decision-makers will tell you they want to move people and goods safely. In reality, none of our decision-making processes prioritize vulnerable user safety or environmental damage higher than minor inconveniences like traffic delay. To land the plane of this point, it’s good people are spreading trips throughout the day, but they’re likely to return to AM and PM peak driving. The status quo suggests they’ll want harmful, ineffective road widening — even while they wave their EV chargers at you claiming to be environmentally conscious.
Nobody knows what post-COVID travel habits look like, but signs but to Americans driving more — especially transit riders getting in used cars for their commutes instead of riding the subway or bus. The COVID bike boom is cool but recreational. There’s no evidence those people will cause any growth of bike commuting for essential trips. American towns and cities have greatly lagged the European and Central/South American COVID-era campaigns to repurpose car space in roads for beginner-friendly biking and walking networks.
There are benefits to Americans heading to bike lanes and trails for weekend family adventures, but cleaner, greener, safer transportation isn’t one of them. America designs its surface transportation system for 8:15 AM on a Wednesday. These UC-Davis show signs Americans will demand more, wider roads. Whether they drive electric vehicles or not is superfluous. I’m not optimistic, guys.
Public Feedback Near Deadlines [Full List]
  • March 13, 2021: West Hyattsville-Queens Chapel Sector Plan Interactive Comment Map (DC border!); “The Prince George’s County Planning Department is seeking community input for this new Sector Plan: What do you like most about this area?, What could be improved?, What types of amenities would you like to see in this area in the next two decades?” -> Project | Study Area Map | Interactive Map to Make Public Comments
  • March 21, 2021: Crystal City Planned Bike Network, 1st Public Engagement; “County staff developed a recommendation for a bicycle network that forms a pair of one-way north/south bicycle facilities along with improvements to east/west streets. The alternative is feasible within the four-year timeframe and will complement transit and requires minimal changes to the curb line.” -> Project | Recording and Slides from 2/24 Public Mtg | Recording of Advocates Mtg Explaining the Plan’s Flaws |Public Survey Form (You Have to Create Account, Click the Thought Bubble Icon to Add Your Feedback) <- Support 2-Way “Concept 2” on Crystal Drive!
  • ASAP: Oxon Run Dog Park Petition;“The following petition is to inform Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C your position on establishing a dog park in Oxon Run Park. The location would be the 100 block of Xenia St. SE.”->Public Survey Form
  • ASAP: ActiveFairfax Phase 1 - The Bike and Pedestrian Master Plans; “Fairfax County is continuing its efforts to prioritize transportation for all with its launch of the ActiveFairfax Transportation Plan. Active transportation is self-propelled, human-powered travel including activities such as walking, biking, rolling (scooter/wheelchair/stroller), hiking, running and riding.” -> Project | Info Flyer | Public Survey Form | Interactive Map: Place Points for Key Destinations + Barriers​ | Interactive Map: Suggest Locations for New Trail and Bikeway Routes + Complete Street Enhancements | Submit Public Comment/Question via Email
Notable Upcoming Events [Full Calendar]
  • TOMORROW - Sat 3/13 | 11 AM: Minnesota Avenue NE/SE Ward 7 Corridor Improvement Summit; “On March 13th at 11 am via Zoom ANC7F & Community Stakeholders will host the Minnesota Ave Improvement Summit. The goal of the summit is to discuss solutions to build a more vibrant community; at the conclusion of the summit, we expect creating an action plan with steps for implementation to be presented to city policy leaders for enactment.” [Event Details and RSVP]
  • Wed 3/17 | 7 PM: Transportation Electrification Roadmap Stakeholder Listening Session, by DC Department of Energy and Environment; “The Transportation Electrification Roadmap will build on the District’s goal to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and will outline specific strategies by which the District will transition from traditional gasoline/diesel vehicles to electric vehicle (EV) options.” [Event Details and RSVP]
Recommended Reading [Full List]
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Gordon Chaffin

This is Gordon Chaffin's newsletter. By day, he's a local journalist and current events storyteller living in Washington, DC. The goal: produce writing and multimedia -- civic participation resources -- that include, inform, and equip stakeholders with the least power to improve their community. On evenings and weekends, Gordon is a freelance audio/video producer and photographer. Topics of interest: transportation -- especially non-car transit -- plus housing, environmental justice, social and gender policies like family-medical leave, and education -- especially early childhood. Please send news tips to gordon[AT]streetsensemedia[DOT]org and freelance job inquiries to gordonchaffin[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

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Gordon Chaffin, 680 Rhode Island Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002