Covid-19 caused a tsunami of changes to the transportation sector. In its wake, Congress shouldn’t design the $1.9 trillion stimulus package as though Americans will eventually return to their pre-pandemic behavior. Instead, legislators should determine what changes in behavior will be permanent and, until the future is clearer, focus on maintaining existing infrastructure rather than building new and ambitious projects.
Some modes of transportation have fared better than others since the pandemic began. A recent Department of Transportation (DOT) report by Steven Polzin finds that passenger cars have seen only a 10 percent decline in mileage, while Amtrak, airlines, public transit, and intercity buses have seen drop-offs in excess of 60 percent. The report projects that only air travel will return to its pre-pandemic level by 2024, while travel via other modes, including cars, will remain about 5 percent to 10 percent lower.
The pandemic accelerated the substitution of telecommunications and e-commerce for in-person trips, from telemedicine supplanting the doctor’s office to digital streaming replacing the movie theater. As long as these changes continue after the pandemic, they will continue to affect how people get around.
Remote work will have an especially pronounced effect. Before the pandemic, 5 percent of Americans telecommuted. By September 2020, 34 percent did so—ranging from 73 percent of individuals making above $200,000 to 12 percent of those earning under $25,000, according to the DOT report. If telecommuting increases even modestly from pre-pandemic levels to, say, 10 percent or 15 percent of the workforce, then transportation needs will change due to declining congestion. Stan Caldwell, executive director of the Mobility21 National University Transportation Center at Carnegie Mellon University, told me that a reduction in urban-vehicle mileage produces up to twice the decline in traffic congestion; a 5 percent reduction in traffic on a congested highway may cause a 10 percent–30 percent increase in average vehicle speeds. In a future where more people work remotely, cities could put more resources into maintaining infrastructure and dealing with such problems as delivery-vehicle parking rather than building with rush-hour traffic in mind.
These changes will create several losers, the biggest being public transit—urban bus, subway, and rail systems. Public transit in major metropolitan areas achieves efficiencies from transporting millions of people daily in close quarters. Yet transit systems lost money even before the pandemic, and Congress allocated to them a combined $39 billion in emergency relief last year as ridership plummeted. New York City’s transit system typifies the decline: as of mid-February, subway ridership was down by 70 percent, and bus ridership 60 percent, from a year ago. Ridership is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Emptier roads also threaten the viability of emerging technologies such as Maglev (travel pods above roadways) and hyperloop (travel pods under roadways) systems, both of which are expensive to build and designed to bypass traffic jams. With less traffic, travelers may not be willing to pay a premium for such services.
Though the DOT expects air travel to rebound, the pandemic hurt the airline industry. Domestic air travel is down by almost 40 percent from the same time a year ago, and international travel is down by about 55 percent. Congress allocated $12 billion to airlines in emergency relief last year. Airlines earn a substantial share of their profits from business travel—they will have to change their pricing models as telecommunications replaces in-person meetings.
On the other hand, nothing beats personal vehicles for social distancing, and cars have been clear pandemic winners. Some buyers have purchased cars as part of a move from cities to suburbs, and many car owners have substituted driving for flying or rail. As AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson told CNBC in October: “The demand for individual mobility has gone through the roof. . . . It’s hard to predict past five years, but for the next three to five years, there’s been a shift in demand.”
It’s not just personal vehicles that stand to benefit. More retail, grocery, and restaurant deliveries mean more demand for delivery vehicles, drivers, and shoppers, as well as for short-term parking outside restaurants. New technology, such as drones and delivery robots, could go the last mile to the home or office. FedEx and Wing, a division of Alphabet, began experimenting with drone delivery in 2019.
To allocate federal infrastructure dollars wisely, legislators need to know how many people will continue to work from home—and how this share will be divided among cities, suburbs, and rural areas. As our transportation habits have changed, so have the answers to these questions. Congress should take note.