As our nation grappled with how to adapt to COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, evidence was pointing to a significant shift in how we Americans were getting to work, as well as where we worked. We knew that those who were able to, did work from home, while others chose to walk or bike. It was also believed that those who had to report to a workplace preferred to drive alone. Now, results from a recent survey of commuters throughout Virginia confirms much of this anecdotal evidence of a paradigm shift in the way we have been commuting for the first time since electrified streetcars initially led to the suburbanization of America in the late 19th century.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) administered the survey to the general commuting public between June 29th and July 17th, 2020, as a means to identify shifts in employment and commuting as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 5,493 individuals from across Virginia took part in the survey, which confirmed many of the trends transportation professionals and those in the business community suspected for months.
Current and Future Telework Trends
Probably the most profound revelation of this survey is that, at the time data were collected, 53 percent of workers were working from home at least part time. The survey also revealed that 48 percent – nearly half – of those who were working from home planned to continue to do so on at least a part-time basis following this pandemic. If this finding translates to reality, it will impose a revolutionary change on our state’s (and, presumably, our nation’s) transportation system. On the plus side, less capital would have to be expended on increasing roadway capacity and maintenance; greenhouse gases and other air pollutants would likely be significantly curbed, possibly mitigating climate change and some health-related conditions such as asthma; commute times would likely be reduced; and it may become more feasible to repurpose some proportion of roadways for other types of transportation infrastructure such as bike lanes and sidewalks.
On the negative side, a long-term trend of teleworking would affect ridership of transit systems, likely resulting in deleterious budget impacts, which would almost certainly impact underserved and high-poverty communities disproportionately. Less driving would also mean less funding for transportation maintenance and projects due to lower fuel tax and toll revenue.
Impact on Public Transit
As noted above, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have a lasting impact on transit, and the results of the survey bear this out. When commuters who routinely used transit were asked about how the pandemic would affect their desire to continue to use this mode, 54 percent replied that they would no longer feel safe using this mode of travel. Thirty-four percent stated that they would continue using transit regularly, either because they were not concerned about the pandemic or because they did not have any other choices. Eleven percent indicated that they would no longer need to use transit, while 1 percent suggested that using transit had become more appealing.
The data are undoubtedly distressing for transit agencies throughout Virginia (and, likely, throughout the U.S.) due to lower farebox revenue resulting from a possible decline in ridership, at least for the near future. There are steps transit agencies can take, however, to help reassure the commuting public and minimize ridership loss. When asked what transit agencies could do to increase comfort levels of the potential transit users, mask-wearing policies ranked as the highest response, followed by increased frequency of transit service, followed again by marked-off seats.
Carpooling and Bicycling
Carpooling and bicycling are two modes of commuting that have been impacted by COVID-19, one negatively and the other positively. Survey data indicated that carpooling dropped by about 78 percent pre-COVID to the time of the survey. The survey did not appear to indicate how commuters felt about returning to carpooling once the pandemic had ended, but given the responses to future transit use, it could be assumed that this mode will rebound, though possibly not to the level that it had been prior to the pandemic. That said, the survey did indicate that carpoolers would feel safer utilizing this mode if occupants wore masks and vehicles were not overcrowded; these responses are similar to those given for improving comfort levels of transit riders.
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have increased the popularity of bicycling as a viable commuting option. The survey indicates that 37 percent of those commuting by bicycle transitioned to bicycling from another mode following the onset of the pandemic. When asked what factors would improve their comfort when bicycling, most respondents stated that a greater number of bike lanes, followed by more multi-use paths, would achieve this. Therefore, communities which seek to diversify commute options for their residents and workers should consider increasing their transportation systems’ shares of bicycle infrastructure.
This survey, administered by VDOT and DRPT, confirmed many commute trends believed to have been underway as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To view information pertaining to this survey, please visit https://www.virginiadot.org/travel/commuter-survey.asp. Furthermore, if you are a commuter seeking alternatives to your single-occupancy automobile commute, or if you are an employer seeking to promote telework or alternative transportation, please visit us at www.ridesolutions.org today!