Living Laboratory: What Can We Learn from COVID-19 to Improve Commuting and Transportation?

The COVID-19 pandemic threw us all into a living laboratory that is greatly affecting our lives and our physical world. As movement continues to be restricted, the environmental impacts of not as many workers commuting to their office are hard to ignore.

We’re keeping an eye on some of the positive implications, including improved air quality, reduced traffic congestion, and an increase in telework, walking and bicycling, and asking ourselves two key questions:

  1. What should we be paying attention to in the short-term to support long-term decisions?
  2. How will the COVID-19 impact the long-term transportation future?

Short-Term Transportation Benefits of COVID-19

Since we were thrown into teleworking as a means to continue many business operations while social distancing, we experienced the rush to equip ourselves with the technology needed to work effectively from home.  We also had to quickly educate ourselves to the tech resources that exist so that we could continue to meet with our teams and external customers, members, etc.  Starting the week of March 11 was a very disruptive time for many of us, and we had to adapt quickly.  The benefits to travel demand and our air quality are staggering. We’ve seen:

It’s been exciting to see how cities like Denver are piloting the use of closed streets to provide more space for walking and bicycling.  Denver is now third in the country for miles of park roads and city streets (16.1 miles) closed to cars and open for bicyclists and pedestrians to spread out as they travel or to get outside for exercise and fresh air. Not only is Denver third in the U.S., but the city is leading the state of Colorado. We hope to see other Colorado communities follow suit soon!

This virus has been very disruptive to the transportation sector in far reaching and global ways; many of which we haven’t even considered yet, nor do we know if there will be lasting effect, specifically to our public transit system and tolled infrastructure such as the US 36 Express Lanes.

We learned in our recent webinar that people are becoming more open to exploring commute options to driving solo.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Commuting?

This time also offers us a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine the transportation system and move it towards a more resilient, equitable and seamless experience.  Much of our road infrastructure is designed for the two peaks-one in the morning and one in the evening albeit at a great cost. Parking also takes up most of land of most suburban office developments. By not having to travel reduces peak demand and supply of expensive new roadway and transit capacity freeing up space for everyone else that needs steady all-hours access. It also reduces the need for so much parking. This is like flattening the curve for transportation supply and demand capacity.

Now a few weeks in, it seems that the office is not as critical as we thought for managing staff and existing client work. Managers and teams are starting to see how these measures can be better for everyone, including the company. For families with kids at home who are conducting online school or whose childcare has closed, this poses another set of challenges to juggling teleworking and family needs.

Our economy is, and will take a huge hit and it will be tempting to go back to the status quo transportation system. However, we can and should use this time to think about how we got here, what no longer works, and ask how might we re-organize our transportation system so that it is more resilient, seamless and works for everyone, including our planet.