The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationship with work and how we get there. Like no other time in history, many businesses across the globe have been able to continue working due to technological advances and the support of service workers and first responders—the true heroes of the past year. This change has also had dramatic impacts on our transportation systems and the future of how and why we travel.
For example, in US areas with stay-at-home orders, high-level estimates indicate that average daily travel distance may have declined from 8.0 to 1.6 km (5 to 1 mi), alongside an increase in logistics and delivery-oriented traffic for food and supplies and an increase in recreational trips. According to a report by McKinsey this is paralleled by global reductions in transit ridership ranging from 70-90%. At the same time data around the globe shows a parallel increase in driving and vehicle miles travel.
As shown in the figure below, mid-2020 data from the Netherlands showed driving levels increasing to pre-COVID levels for non- trips. The data shows not only that auto traffic volume increased for increased social and recreational purposes but for work-related trips. While some speculated that this meant a decrease in automotive travel due to pandemic shelter-in-place orders, most experts now believe that the longer-term trend may be a net increase in traffic. To simply state it—travelers may have given up riding the bus or taking the train for driving a car.
What does this mean to the future of work and transport?
So as the world goes back to normalcy and more offices, restaurants, stores, etc. reopen what does this mean? How will we travel to work? Some, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, have speculated that there will be large scale changes to the how and where we work—suggesting that we are entering era of the “metaverse” where the digital and real world begin colliding. Thinkers have speculated that there will be dramatic shifts away from large cities and regions to “Zoomtowns” igniting a new telework world devoid of traffic congestion and work related trips. Richard Florida wrote a blog for the London School of Economics that specified a reduction in office demand of 20-30% that,
…will have a significant impact (on cities) especially on lower-income service workers in the restaurants, cafes and shops that support these office economies. It will also negatively impact cities’ tax revenues and their fiscal situation.
In reality, the future is likely more nuanced. Many who have looked at data from 2021 have found that the death of cities has been highly exaggerated. For example, New York Times has provided evidence that shows that large scale migration away from cities has not occurred.
Most universities around the world plan to return to in-person instruction—even those that have had issues with transportation in the past. Many companies, including those in the technology space like Google and Apple, have already announced plans to return to in-person. Both have agreed to shorter work weeks but both companies see the need to have employees connecting with one another.
What does this mean for urban transport futures?
What does this mean for the future of transport? First, it is worth noting again that telework and a reduced workweek are not a zero-sum trip (or emissions) reduction strategy. Numerous studies have suggested that the trip reduction value of teleworking may be limited. Some of my work shows that local travel increased after 2020 stay-at-home orders.
Absent policy this could mean a future of increased driving, yet planners engineers and policy makers have long known that this kind of future was not the most resilient for cities. In this light the future of transport must focus on three things: 1) urban development for carbonless commuting; 2) innovative travel with technology; and 3) implementing behavioral strategies to nudge sustainable travel.
Cities must reinforce accessible urban development for carbonless commuting. Land-use plans should continue to rethink the mixing of land uses, more closing aligning origins and destinations in the transportation network, and more generously producing affordable units for low-and-moderate-income households. There have been a number of safe and slow streets projects that come to life during the COVID-19 era. These should be the catalyst to transform streets in the future—with more dedicated space on roadways for walking and cycling, wider sidewalks, and more generous intersections that prioritize carbonless transportation.
At the same time, planners, engineers and policy makers must innovate travel with technology and green energy. Like never before, we live in a time when technology exists that can revolutionize our transportation industry. Shared and on-demand mobility—be it ridesharing services or microtransit platforms—have changed the nature of transit. And as their success illustrates, people are craving reliable and convenient transportation that can be provided when and where they need it—supplementing other trips made by walking, cycling, and transit. Cities must admit where transit has failed to adapt and learn lessons from this—replace platforms with high-tech, clean fuel technology.
Finally, cities must develop behavioral strategies to nudge sustainable travel. Planners and engineers need new ways to think about nudging individuals to ride transit, share cars, walk or cycle; they need to explore how incentives and social cues can be effective nudges toward sustainable travel. Planners and engineers need to move beyond the idea of simply providing free transit passes and think about creative ways to get constituents to travel beyond a bikeable and walkable distance in a new vision of the 15 minute City.
Going back to Richard Florida’s vision for urban migration and the future of work, even he focuses on this notion of urban revitalization and reimaging the city, stating that,
…This is the moment to remake those skyscraper canyons as better, more integrated and affordable urban neighbourhoods…
All of this might include departing from legacy systems and the norms of the 21st century. As Florida suggests we now have capacity to dream up new plans and platforms that reposition cities future the future. We can build the urban infrastructure for sustainable and equitable growth for the next 100 years. So let’s get on with it.
Bill Riggs is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Management, and a consultant and advisor to multiple companies and start-ups on technology, smart mobility and urban development.
Image Credit: Michele Ursi