As life edges toward a degree of normalcy in many U.S. cities, traffic experts are waiting to see whether rush hour returns to “normal” as well—while they envision how it could be better. Traffic may be returning along with a reviving economy, but “planners, transit agencies, and researchers are now considering the remarkable possibility that in many places it won’t revert to its old shape amid newfound work flexibility,” reports The New York Times.
And that could mean a less miserable commute for those still tethered (willingly or not) to their vehicles, and better bus, bike, and pedestrian options for everyone else.Digging into the phenomenon of rush hour, the Times writes that this decidedly ill-named “hour” [our son at age 5: “Why don’t they call it slow hour?”—Ed.] has long been “the principal obsession of transportation planning” in the United States.“
We widen highways…and measure whether those highways are worth their vast expense by the minutes and seconds saved in peak travel time. We buy rail cars and buses for the busiest times of day, then run them empty in the opposite direction and leave many unused in off-hours.”Or as Christopher Forinash, a principal with the transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard, summarized it, “how do we make the peak of the peak suck less?”
Such a target is not only underwhelming, it has also primarily served the white collar worker commuting daily to the city core from the suburbs.
But should the pandemic-driven swing into remote work persist, gridlock could ease up considerably. “Lower peaks could mean space on city streets for bike lanes and more equitable bus service, with more off-hours resources available for essential workers,” the Times imagines—all of which could improve lives considerably, and improve health outcomes, for lower-income communities.
A key point, the Times notes, is that a small change in traffic volumes can make a big difference.“That’s because roadway congestion is nonlinear,” the paper writes. “Each additional car doesn’t necessarily contribute equally to making traffic worse. Approaching a tipping point, a few more cars can strangle a highway. Similarly, removing a small share can unclog congestion.”The same holds true on transit. “Until all the seats are gone, more passengers don’t affect you much,” the Times says. “But once the aisle starts to fill up, every new body erodes your personal space and compounds chaos at the boarding door.”
Will telework persist? Experts say yes. The trend was accelerating before COVID-19, and now it could reach critical mass as the pandemic erases the “stigma” of working from home and companies invest in the technologies to facilitate a distributed work force.
“In 1980, about 2.3% of workers said they usually telecommuted, according to census data,” the Times writes. “By 2018, it was 5.7%. Now researchers are projecting that share could double or more effectively overnight.”