It’s a hard time for mobility experts who are asked to predict the impact of post-Covid working habits on commuters and urban traffic. We know the pandemic is not over, and lots of organizations are offering hybrid models with teleworking options to their employees – but the ‘return to office’ call is equally strong. Most analysts agree there will be a gradual increase in commuters over the coming months, rather than a sudden rush back to the office, but the spread of virus variants might blur the picture overnight.
In some cities, the reduced traffic congestion due to Covid-19 lockdowns and the massive teleworking seems to be encouraging more people to drive to the office. In the US, INRIX compared driving times to downtown Seattle at 8:30am, during morning rush hour: in 2019, before Covid, about 500 thousand workers were within a thirty-minute drive from home, while in 2020, during Covid, more than 800 thousand people were within a thirty-minute drive. This means the lack of congestion gave 58% more people the opportunity to travel downtown in half an hour, thus being more willing to make the drive as they don’t fear traffic.
The possibility that more commuters are driving is proved by parking trends. In several large cities with major mass-transit systems, including New York and San Francisco, parking usage rates are resuming quite quickly after collapsing in 2020. As reported by The Washington Post, in San Francisco parking facilities are at 85 to 90 percent of their pre-pandemic levels, compared with a 74 percent average comeback in other North American cities.
However, mobility experts acknowledge urban people are increasingly interested in alternative commuting systems – and those who commute less often are more likely to ride a bicycle or walk, provided their home-office journey is not too long.
The City of Boston investigated mobility habits of 2,650+ workers and calculated drive-alone commuting rates have dropped 10 percentage points in the last 12 months. About 6.5% of respondents questioned in 2021 said they use to bike to work, while about 9.5% said they plan to bike to work in the future. A similar survey in 2020 had lower results, as 4.4% said they used to bike to work and 8% said they planned to in the future. Building on these findings, the City is improving the existing bike infrastructure and 4.5 new miles of separated bike lanes will be added by the end of this year to the current network.
Changes are under way and it’s not clear whether commuters will be back to their habits of early 2020 or enjoy a new routine — and cities needs to closely monitor the evolution to take wise decisions about mobility and traffic management. But the common feeling is, some adjustments to pre-pandemic commuting patterns might be everlasting.