Empty Trains, Packed Trucks: How COVID-19 Changed Transportation

Published Jun 8, 2021

Senior transportation analyst Elizabeth Irvin walks us through some surprising transportation patterns she’s been following throughout the pandemic.

In this episode

Colleen and Elizabeth discuss:

  • transportation trends during the pandemic
  • President Biden's infrastructure plan
  • how we build a better, holistic, transportation system
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:31)
Intro (0:31-2:09)
Interview part 1 (2:09-13:00)
Break (13:00-13:55)
Interview part 2 (13:55-23:01)
Ending segment throw (23:01-24:16)
Ending segment (24:16-28:19)
Outro (28:19-29:00)

Related content

Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Additional editing: Omari Spears
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: Pre-pandemic, and for the past 15 years, I’ve been living in a seaside town about 30 miles away from where I work. Luckily, the distance by water is a lot shorter. When the commuter ferry is running, I can hop on a boat and let someone else get me to Boston with no traffic, while I admire the view. However, when the ferry isn’t running… I get stuck in traffic in one of the most congested metro regions in the country.

With some workspaces and schools that were previously closed reopening, and people who have the flexibility to work remotely wondering what’s next… I keep seeing the same statistic that commuting is bad for your health. According to some studies, it’s linked to higher rates of stress and depression. From my own personal experience, now that I haven’t had to get on I-93 to work in more than a year…. I concur. My commute was stressful, and my life is better without it—though I do miss my colleagues.

But just because I’ve been off the roads doesn’t mean we’ve all been off the roads. Transportation, from ferries and trains to cars and 18-wheelers, has been affected in unprecedented ways by COVID-19, and by how we’ve adapted to it. I’m lucky to be joined today by my colleague Elizabeth Irvin, a senior transportation analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. We discussed the many ways that the last year-plus has changed the way we get around—us, and our stuff—and what needs to happen so that transportation is sustainable, safe, and equitable for all.

Colleen: Elizabeth, welcome to the podcast. It's great to have you on.

Elizabeth: Good morning. It's great to be here.

Colleen: So, there've been some major shifts in transportation patterns, as we've seen in the past year due to the pandemic. What are some of the changes that you've made to your routines?

Elizabeth: The biggest change in my routine has been in my commute. I live in Chicago and I used to ride the train about an hour each way to downtown. And now, I walk to my desk in the space where the coat rack used to be by the front door in our apartment. We didn't have a car for the first half of the pandemic, and I did a lot of large grocery trips on bicycle. And then in the second half in around June, we borrowed a car from my partner's parents so that my partner could get to a job that wasn't transit-accessible. And since we borrowed it, we've shifted our non-work trips to larger, fewer grocery trips rather than running around the corner to get whatever I need for that night's dinner. And I'm curious, what's changed about your travel patterns?

Colleen: Well, you know, my travel patterns actually, they've changed quite a bit. I live in the Boston area and I live out sort of on a little peninsula in the Harbor, so we have a commuter boat. So, I would do a combination of some days I drive, some days I'd take the commuter boat and then hop on the train to get into the office. And since the pandemic, I’ve probably, I can probably count on two hands the number of times I've actually driven my car. And my partner's working from home as well, so we've realized that we don't even need two cars anymore. And, you know, that has really got me to thinking about what trends you've been seeing because with everyone's individual situation, I'm kind of wondering how it all sums up into the bigger picture.

Elizabeth: Well, I think both of our answers point to one really critical thing to keep in mind, which is that we have to think about our transportation system as a whole. Often when people think about the transportation system, either they just automatically default to thinking about public transit, trains and buses, or they think about just their own cars in the highway system. And what both of our stories show is that those systems are very connected. Passenger cars, transit, biking varies and the movement of stuff, as well as the movement of people. And what we've really seen during the pandemic is that it's turned up the volume on a lot of trends and problems with our transportation system that were already happening, and it's highlighted some of the inequities that exist in our transportation system. So, I'm just gonna run through some sort of overall stats, sort of the bird's-eye view of the high-level trends that have happened in these various modes over the pandemic.

Colleen: Yeah. That would be really great because I think you're right. We're thinking about our individual sort of piecemeal and not the whole picture. So, go for it.

Elizabeth: And I should just mention that a lot of these statistics come from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This is a federal website that's done a really great job of aggregating these in a website that folks can take a look at and see and explore. So, to start out with passenger cars, mileage really bottomed out in late March and April at about 50% of normal volume. But it was actually...it bounced back pretty quickly. It was back up to about 80% or 90% of normal travel by the middle of June, which I think is maybe surprising for folks who think it's, you know, was still lower for a longer time.

Colleen: That's really surprising to me. I would not have guessed that. Do you have any thoughts about why?

Elizabeth: Well, and actually, just one other thing to mention is that actually in March, passenger vehicle travel started exceeding the historic baseline. So, it's above normal travel for this March and April. And I think what's happening is...and there's a couple of studies that are older that look at this a bit. But even though people's commute trips for people who don't have to go into an office every day or drive to work the way they used to, they're replacing those work trips with other kinds of trips. In transportation planning, we often call trips where you make multiple stops tours. So, a trip where you go to work and then on the way home, you stop at the grocery store or maybe on your way into work, you stop and drop off a kid at school. It's the most efficient way to get all your stuff done, both from your perspective, from saving time and from a sort of system perspective in terms of saving miles and saving emissions. Without that work trip, people are still making a lot of those other smaller trips. And so, we're not seeing as big a savings from telecommuting as you might intuitively think.

Colleen: Interesting. Yeah. So, rather than bundling all your chores and everything in that one trip, now you're doing those separately. So, what else are you seeing?

Elizabeth: So, as I mentioned at the beginning, it's important to think not just about how people move, but about how things move. And one thing that has stuck out is that truck travel has stayed basically constant throughout the pandemic. You know, I had in my head when I was just checking this data that we'd see an increase in truck traffic.

Colleen: That's what I would have thought too because I have ordered more deliveries since we've been home.

Elizabeth: And I think that is very true, and we've seen increasingly people shifting to ordering more things online. But I think in the beginning of the pandemic, the trucks were really the only thing on the road. And so, it made it seem like there was way more of them. But we've got sort of the same number of truckers doing a lot of work, which explains why we've seen some delays in shipping times. They've been working really, really hard throughout the pandemic. Air travel took an early and steep dive. The number of people screened at airports in April 2020 was under a million weekly, which is about 6% of normal, and has been more gradual to recover, though we are starting to see folks coming back to taking flights, both domestically and internationally. International travel was obviously harder hit, but we're even starting to see some more international flights scheduled over the last couple of months. One other thing to mention about actually, to jump back to the roadside of things for a minute, research came out at the end of March that in the first half of 2020 when traffic declined, when there were a lot fewer cars on the road, the number of pedestrians killed in car crashes increased by 20%. So, fewer cars, more fatal car crashes, which is a huge problem, obviously.

Colleen: Are there any thoughts about why?

Elizabeth: Well, the hypothesis is that this is partly...the more car crashes were caused because traffic declined. We often, when we're talking about our roadways, act like the most important thing we can do in investing in transportation is reducing congestion, but actually, slow speeds keep people safe. And so, in places where there were fewer people on the road, people started speeding up. And in cases where those roads weren't really meant for people to be driving, you know, 40 and 50 miles per hour, that resulted in more fatal car crashes that disproportionately affected pedestrians and cyclists, but, you know, also have safety implications for drivers themselves. And this is one of those places where, as I said upfront, this is, the pandemic is foregrounding trends that were happening beforehand. One thing we've seen in decades of research is that communities of color and low-income communities tend to have more fatal bike and pedestrian crashes.

And one reason why is that in a lot of these neighborhoods, the speeds on the roads through them are higher. And that's partly...it's a combination of factors. It's partly because a lot of these neighborhoods have experienced declining population over the years, so the roads were designed for more cars to pass through. And so, when there are fewer cars on the road, people start driving faster. And another reason is that a lot of these roads were designed to get people through those communities rather than really to serve the people in them. So, you know, roads connecting suburbs to downtown, for example. So, they were designed to move people quickly and don't necessarily have the sidewalks and the crossings or the protected bike lanes that wealthier communities have.

Colleen: What have you seen in terms of public transportation?

Elizabeth: That's a big one. So, in transit, ridership fell as much as 80% and has still not recovered. We're still about 60% or 70% lower than usual. And it's really important to know that these declines are not even across the board. Rail ridership, overall, has been slower to rebound than bus ridership. And in cities around the country, we've seen significant geographic disparities between who's continuing to ride transit and who's staying home. The people who've kept riding are the people who can't work from home, you know, grocery workers, medical professionals. And I'm not just talking about doctors and nurses, but also, you know, custodial crews and other people who keep hospitals running. And ridership reductions have been really concentrated in those, in transportation planning, we often call them the peaks, commute peaks. So that's the morning rush and evening rush when lots of white-collar workers are traveling kind of all at the same time to jobs that are concentrated in sort of downtown areas or commercial business districts, those kinds of things. And where we've seen ridership stay more constant is at, you know, the middle of the day, in the evening, at times when service was already a little lower.

And these ridership reductions mean a huge reduction in revenue for transit agencies, which is why it's so important that federal COVID relief packages over the last year have included funding for transit agencies so that they can keep providing service, particularly keep the service that is, and in some cases, actually, focus on and improve the service that's being used most by the people who are continuing to ride.

Colleen: What have you seen in terms of ride-hailing with Uber and Lyft?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So, ride-hailing is the term that transportation folks use to talk about Uber and Lyft. You'll sometimes hear people call it ridesharing, which I personally don't like using because people aren't often sharing a ride, but we're talking about Uber and Lyft and some of those other companies where you use your phone to get a car to come to you. And those experienced really dramatic ridership declines on par with transit, really. Uber and Lyft reported ridership dropping between 70% and 80% in that same sort of early part of the pandemic. And part of that was also that Uber and Lyft's suspended, and they've still suspended the ridesharing part of their services. So, the UberPool, the Lyft Lines, they've really are just focused on, you know, for safety reasons, only having one passenger or one family, you know, group of riders in the vehicle at a time.

What's been interesting to see about Uber and Lyft ridership, which is similar to what we've seen in transit is the declines haven't been uniform. Some places kept taking Uber and Lyft and, in particular, lower-income users kept using ride-hailing during the pandemic for some of the same reasons they were continuing to take public transit.

Folks who either don't have a car or don't have access to one, folks who use public transit for most of their trips but have some that they just really can't make work with the transit that's available to them. People who live in places where the transit access isn't quite good enough for people to meet all their daily needs through biking and walking in transit, but who don't have enough income to own a car. So, we've seen those trips continue whereas the bulk of Uber and Lyft trips are concentrated in the sort of afternoon, evening hours. And there are a lot of folks stopping for drinks with co-workers on their way home or going to entertainment. Those kinds of trips have understandably not happened during the pandemic.

There's one more trend I wanted to mention, which is bike and scooters. What transportation planners often call micromobility, which is just a fancy word for biking and scooters and the sharing services. So, things like your city's bike share or some of the companies that were doing shared scooters shut down temporarily in the beginning of the pandemic. And a lot of them reopened over the summer. And by the end of the summer and early fall, some systems were seeing higher ridership than before the pandemic.

Colleen: So, is there any way to figure out which of these trends will continue?

Elizabeth: That is absolutely the million-dollar question. And it's something that transportation experts around the country have been talking about, wondering about, trying to figure out how to study since February or March and, you know, trying to understand both the immediate impact of COVID on travel and what it means in the long-term. And especially in the beginning, a lot of those conversations were quite speculative because we didn't have a lot of data and I've already walked through a bit of the data that has started to come out since March. A lot of this data has a lag, so we've been learning these things really in the last three to six months, and we've started to get a good picture of what has really happened with transportation during the pandemic. And it's going to take us a little longer to figure out what will happen after, but there are some researchers who are doing some really great work to try to fill in some of that picture. And, the data that I've walked through is kind of the bird's-eye view in a lot of ways. It's looking at the system as a whole, and really, we should come back to as much as we can, how transportation is affecting individual people.

Colleen: Let’s talk for a minute about President Biden’s infrastructure plan. What do you find most promising in the plan?

Elizabeth: Well, I think the thing that I am most encouraged about is the way the administration has been talking about the system as a whole. To go back to something I said right up front, we can't just pick out one mode and focus on that and think that we're addressing the problems with the transportation system. We really need to think about how transit and personal cars and freight and biking and walking and safety, how those things all intersect. People aren't just drivers, they're also all pedestrians. So, the proposals that we're seeing so far are really focused on the system as a whole. And one thing that's my particular nerdy favorite is a focus on doing a better job of measuring the right things. So, measuring things like access to jobs, measuring things like greenhouse gas emissions in terms of deciding where we make our investments in the transportation system, rather than focusing everything on how is this investment going to reduce congestion? The big measures that are important in a lot of transportation planning efforts are, you know, congested vehicle hours' traveled or vehicle throughput is another really common one. How many cars can you get through an intersection in a certain amount of time?

And that is something that's easy to measure but is not necessarily measuring the thing that makes the biggest difference in people's lives. And so, there's been a real push to improve how we make decisions and make those decisions with less emphasis on building more and expanding our roads and focusing on how do we fix what we already have? How do we make really strategic investments in our infrastructure that helps the most people? And one piece of that is investing in zero-emissions technology. So, the Biden administration has set a goal that American-built buses, for example, are zero emissions by 2030. So, that's in addition to focusing on passenger car electrification, making sure that our bus system, which goes through a lot of areas with really significant air quality issues is contributing to the solution rather than putting more diesel pollution in the air.

Colleen: I'm glad you mentioned that one because that's my favorite one on the list. I love the idea of electric buses, school buses. I just think it would make such a difference in quality of life.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Buses are really, really important and we've touched on them in a couple of different ways. And I mentioned that bus ridership has rebounded more quickly than rail ridership. Buses are a more flexible form of public transportation. So, it's easier to change the route as you learn more about who's using it as development patterns change. When you put a rail line down, you're not gonna shift where the stops are. And it's also a mode where operations funding is really, really critical. So, it's really important that the Biden administration is focused on not just, you know, increasing funding for transit electrification, but also increasing funding for transit service to make sure that bus service actually works in the places that it has the biggest potential to help. As I mentioned before, one of the key things that's really important to ridership, one is land use. So, you need enough density around public transit so that there's enough ridership to support the route. But the other thing that's really critical is frequency of service. It's really hard for people to plan their lives around a bus that comes every 45 minutes, for example. And if you miss it, then you're waiting or you're calling an Uber or Lyft, right?

And so, being able to increase frequency is really important to making service that works well for folks. And there's a couple of great organizations out there that have been really focused on both evaluating the impact of the pandemic on transit and bus ridership, and also advocating for some of these improvements. And one that I just wanted to give a shout out to is an organization called TransitCenter that has been doing really, really great work in this space for years and has been leading the charge on some of these recommendations.

Colleen: Elizabeth, this has been a really interesting conversation. Thank you for joining me. And maybe we can get together in, you know, I don't know, eight months for a check-in to see what we're seeing at that point.

Elizabeth: I'd love to. This is an area that's always changing and I love working in transportation because it's something that everyone experiences in their daily lives. And even if you're not an expert in it, and the sort of overall forces, everyone has sort of opinions about how their transportation system could work better. So, I'm excited to keep focusing on this and talking more about this in the months and years ahead.

Colleen: Great. Well, thank you.

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