Cleaner air, quiet highways and roads that have suddenly become far more bike friendly than anyone could have imagined are constant reminders that the health crisis has a hopeful side.
Transportation planners in Palo Alto and elsewhere now face a key question: Will some of these benefits survive the pandemic?
Steve Raney, who administers the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, has been exploring that question for several weeks. Raney, a consultant at Altrans TMA Inc. co-authored a white paper earlier this month that considers what the commute will likely look like immediately after the pandemic and in the long term. Citing data from transportation agencies, research from transportation think tanks and his own observations, Raney concluded that the ways we get around will change, though traffic will likely return largely to its pre-pandemic levels within a year.
The analysis, which Raney summarized in a Medium post, also suggests that the months immediately after the pandemic will see a dip in carpooling, a rise in telecommuting and a greater shift toward bicycling commuting for those who live close enough to their workplaces.
In many ways, getting people not to drive alone will remain a major challenge. The pandemic has crippled public transportation, hurt carpooling services and made bike-share programs a tougher sell. But it also may usher in a few unexpected benefits even long after the stay-at-home orders are lifted, Raney said.
Experts expect some of the "slow streets" projects that cities like Oakland and Denver put in place during the pandemic to give bicyclists and pedestrians adequate room for social distancing to remain in place. Palo Alto has not yet launched such a program, though Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi told the council earlier this month that his staff is preparing to do so soon.
Transportation experts in other cities also are viewing this quiet time as an opportunity to implement projects that would be tougher to jump-start during normal times and to change the habits of commuters. The paper that Raney co-authored with Kruti Ladani notes that "as the economy recovers, the return by commuters to the workplace offers a unique opportunity to establish new commute habits."
Transportation demand management programs and organizations "will exploit this habit-formation period to further distance post-COVID commuting from business-as-usual," Raney and Ladani wrote.
This view isn't limited to Palo Alto. At a recent webinar sponsored by Ride Healthy, a bike-advocacy group, transportation planner Timothy Papandreou pointed to the more than 100 cities around the world that are implementing "slow streets" projects during the pandemic. These projects restrict cars and provide more space for bicyclists and pedestrians, allowing them to practice physical distancing more easily.
"They're using the opportunity now," said Papandreo, former chief innovation officer at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and founder of the San Francisco-based consulting firm Emerging Transport Advisors. "And we've seen other cities take it to the next level. Paris and Milan said, 'This is it. We're going to do hundreds of kilometers or miles of this.'
"This is the moment to seize this. It is also an opportunity to test things out that would've been difficult to test out. You can actually iterate much quicker now."
Seleta Reynolds, general manager of Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said the pandemic is giving the city a chance to rethink its transportation programs and make them more equitable, given the challenge of using transit services at a time when physical distancing is required.
"We have to use this moment of stillness to come up with a radical, different function of public transit that can begin to solve for the fact that until there is a vaccine that is broadly available and affordable, which is probably a year and a half away, people are not going to be able to be on public transit. And if we're not going to solve their mobility challenges, we will trap them further in poverty."
One idea, she said, is to use some of the federal stimulus funds designated for transit to buy electric vehicles and make them available for neighborhood residents to use for free. Another idea is to buy electric bikes and loan them to people to get to work.
The transit conundrum is just as applicable to the Bay Area, where Caltrain and BART have seen their ridership totals drop by more than 90% during the pandemic. Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has seen the number of riders drop by 89% and is now offering rides for free.
While these numbers will surely rebound once the threat of COVID-19 abates and companies reopen after the mandated shelter-at-home order, experts believe it may be a while before transit use returns to its former levels. Raney cited Frances Edwards, deputy director of the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute, who estimated that once traffic returns to the highways, public transit ridership in congested corridors will quickly spring back to 75% of the pre-pandemic level. It would take about a year in her estimation for transit use to get to 100%, according to the estimate.
Raney and Ladani state in their paper that some transit and mobility services may require all riders to wear masks to protect others from "droplet spread" and allow ridership to increase more rapidly. In some cases, private commuter buses may impose twice-per-month testing for people boarding buses to ensure safe commutes. He pointed to reports that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has recently called for testing of all Amazon employees. Others may follow his lead.
The one factor that will likely help transit agencies get their ridership back is highway congestion. The worse the highways start to look, the more people will start getting onto trains and buses.
"When you have a lousy corridor like U.S. Highway 101, as it gets filled (with) back up with traffic, transit will rebound nicely in those corridors," Raney said.
While transit use remains a major wild card, biking could see an uptick. The paper by Raney and Ladani states that we can expect more bike commuting because the mode allows people to maintain physical distance. Other factors also point in favor of bicycling. Even before the pandemic, Stanford University and other major employers in the Palo Alto area were rolling out programs to offer incentives for employees to commute by bikes. Facebook and Google have launched pilot programs to equip employees with electric bikes, he said.
Palo Alto was just about to implement a bike-share program when the health crisis arrived. The effort could now be hampered by concerns about the virus contagion. But the city also has accelerated the implementation of its bike master plan in recent years, an effort that the city paused after a public outcry over modifications at Ross Road and that it was preparing to resume when the pandemic hit.
Raney said the Palo Alto TMA is preparing to introduce an incentive program to help nudge people toward riding bicycles. It will allow users who bike to work to receive cash credit that they can spend at local businesses. The program uses GPS-based software to make sure people are biking and includes a "commuter wallet" app that will allow users to pay through QR codes on their phones.
The "slow streets" effort can also help spur more biking, though Raney noted that it's mostly limited to large cities like Oakland. Other cities have implemented more limited versions of this, with San Francisco this week banning traffic from a major segment in Golden Gate Park. Raney said he believes some of these bike improvements will outlast the pandemic.
"You may not end up with 74 miles, but you may end up with 7 miles of slow streets," Raney said. "Some of it would stick."
The one area that everyone agrees will see a big boost after the shutdown is telecommuting. Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure for the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said the pandemic forced cities and employers to demonstrate "proof of concept" when it comes to working from home.
"Maybe we don't like forced telework so much, but telework is a viable alternative to commuting," Ricks said at the April 22 webinar.
Numerous studies also suggest that telecommuting has plenty of room for growth. Global Workplace Analytics, a research firm that specializes in workplace strategies, estimated that about 56% of the workforce could work from home at least part of the time. However, only 3.6% of the workforce currently does so for half of their allotted time or more. The firm concluded that employees who worked remotely before the pandemic will do so more frequently once they are allowed to return to the office. For those who were new to working remotely, "there will be a significant upswing in their adoption."
"Our best estimate is that we will see 25-30% of the workforce working at home on (a) multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021," the firm concluded.
Raney also concluded that the trend will "stick," though he predicted that about 10% will continue to telework after the pandemic. During the COVID-19 shutdown, he and Ladani wrote, "many workers have proven their ability to work from home." The ability of more people to work remotely also means that suburban cities that are considering new office developments can now convincingly require that the developers keep their single-occupancy-vehicle rates at 65% or lower (down from the 75% level that has been the norm before the pandemic).
This, his paper states, is based on the "assumption of enlarged telework commute mode share."
"If properly managed, tenants can accommodate more employees in the same building space for almost the same cost," he and Ladani wrote.
Even with more people working remotely, Raney said he expects traffic to gradually return to Highway 101. The lack of traffic jams may be a relief to many, but it is also an inducement for people to get in their cars during peak hours.
"Induced demand is a phenomenon we have to deal with," Raney said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.