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Putting rush hour in the rearview

Even a small increase in remote work can change traffic patterns

By Emily Badger © The New York Times Co.

There is something uniquely awful about that time of day when there is no good way to get around. The car horns sound nastier as downtown traffic snarls. The elbows feel sharper on a jammed subway. The sight of red brake lights is soul-crushing when they lead on a highway all the way to the horizon. Mere mention of it makes the body tense up: rush hour.

But for much of the pandemic, it vanished. Not only did people travel less over the past year, with schools closed, restaurants off-limits, and millions of workers unemployed or at home; they also traveled less in a very particular way. Rush hour peaks flattened, smoothing travel demand around cities across the country into a low-grade continuous flow, a Tuesday morning not so different from a Saturday afternoon.

Traffic has begun to return as the economy has revived. But planners, transit agencies and researchers are now considering the possibility that in many places it won’t revert to its old shape amid newfound work flexibility.

About a third of workers in the U.S. hold jobs that economists say could be done remotely. Suppose many of them worked from home one day a week, or opted occasionally to read email in their bathrobes before heading in. Overall, we’d be talking on a given day about a decline of a few percentage points in peak commuting trips — a small number, but a big deal during the most painful parts of the day.

At this stage of the pandemic, it can feel as if much of life is hurtling back to old form — many of us will still be in the same job, the same city, the same home at the other end of all this. But the pandemic doesn’t have to radically change the future of work to make the decades-old problem of the peak commute perceptibly less miserable; a modest number of people working from home on a Thursday might do it.

That’s because roadway congestion is nonlinear. Each additional car doesn’t necessarily contribute equally to making traffic worse. Approaching a tipping point, a few more cars can strangle a highway. Similarly, removing a small share can unclog congestion.

Transportation researchers have observed the benefits of marginal changes in commuting behavior on Jewish holidays, when most employers remain open but a small share of commuters stays home. In Washington, D.C., compressed schedules and telework policies for federal workers had created noticeably saner traffic on Friday mornings. On the region’s Metrorail, peak ridership before the pandemic was consistently 10% to 15% lower on Fridays than midweek.

New routines emerging from the pandemic could recreate this dynamic on a broader scale.

Fundamentally, rush hour is the constraint around which many people have structured their lives: where to live, which job to take, what grocery store to use, when to eat family dinner. Deborah Salon, professor at Arizona State University, remembers how it shaped her father’s choices in suburban New York. “He organized his whole life around this,” she said. “He had chosen his home location specifically so that it was an uncongested drive to an express train to New York. I didn’t appreciate until I started studying transportation how genius this was.”

The peak is the point

Rush hour is the principal obsession of transportation planning in America. We widen highways to accommodate it, and measure whether those highways are worth their vast expense by the minutes and seconds saved in peak travel time. We buy rail cars and buses for the busiest times of day, then run them empty in the opposite direction and leave many unused in off-hours.

“So much of the central paradigm of transportation planning for the last two to three generations has been, ‘How do we make the peak of the peak suck less?’ ” said Christopher Forinash, principal with transportation planning firm Nelson\\ Nygaard.

Americans have effectively built whole transportation systems around the 1%, he said — not the 1% of the rich, but the 1% of time when travel is at its worst.

Although, to be clear, these are related: Systems designed for peak travel are really designed for the more affluent, said Charles T. Brown, CEO of Equitable Cities, a planning and research firm. It’s disproportionately white-collar office workers, working in the central city and living in outlying areas, who travel at these times.

If peak demand does ease in a lasting way, that could affect how we build infrastructure and how transit agencies spend money. Lower peaks could mean more space on city streets for bike lanes and more equitable bus service, with more offhours resources available for essential workers. It could mean improved traffic in urban cores, even as afternoon traffic worsens in suburbia.

Among car trips in, out and around cities — excluding travel within the suburbs — rush hour peaks have notably shifted around Washington, Atlanta and Seattle, even as they have inched back to normal in some other cities, according to anonymized GPS data from INRIX, analyzed for The New York Times by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Most miles driven in personal vehicles aren’t work commutes; nor are most trips on transit. But that travel has dominated transportation planning precisely because it has made for such unyielding demand spikes.

Many big ideas in transportation involve trying to dislodge people from the peak. That’s the premise of congestion pricing, variable-priced toll lanes and higher peak-hour transit fares. It’s why local governments have “transportation demand management” programs that try to coax commuters to take up bike-share or varied work hours.

Is telework different this time?

We know that the longer disruption lasts, the more likely it is that long-term changes in society follow, said Giovanni Circella, a transportation researcher at the University of California, Davis. Disruption can also prove more lasting, he said, when it intensifies existing trends than when it creates entirely new ones. And the most notable trend in commuting for the last generation has been the steady rise of telework.

In 1980, about 2.3% of workers said they usually telecommuted, according to census data. By 2018, it was 5.7%. Now researchers are projecting that share could double or more effectively overnight.

Researchers at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Stanford and the University of Chicago predict that 20% of post-pandemic workdays will be done at home.

Still, it’s not as if teleworkers will vanish from transportation networks. Some who drive to work only part of the week may move farther out, resulting in fewer but longer commutes. Part-time telework preferences may mean that Monday and Friday congestion eases, but that midweek still looks the same.

In cities where a larger share of workers once relied on transit, there’s a greater chance of transit riders shifting to cars, offsetting some of the gains on roadways from telework. That’s a fear in Chicago, said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Metropolitan Agency for Planning there.

Teleworkers who used to commute by transit are also likely to find that small side trips they once took by foot or transit downtown — to lunch, to a meeting, to the pharmacy — require car trips in the suburbs. Or it’s possible some teleworkers will decide they don’t like having to get in the car for every errand, creating demand for more suburban amenities within walking distance. As David King, a professor at Arizona State, put it: “If I’m spending more time in my neighborhood, I’m going to demand a better neighborhood.”

Every hour is rush hour for someone

The most obvious beneficiaries of all this would be telecommuters liberated from rush hour. That’s not hourly restaurant workers, late-shift janitors or nursing aides.

But the full promise of less spiky travel is that it could help them, too.

Early in the pandemic in San Francisco, transit officials scrapped service on many lines to focus on where essential workers travel. In Washington, the transit authority has begun to restore late-night service on many bus routes well before old schedules return on rush-hour trains.

In larger regional transit agencies, these decisions will be more fraught.

“Inside almost every transit agency, inside its politics, inside its decision-making, there’s this inevitable conflict between the suburban commuter interest who’s trying to get out of congestion, who’s very focused on the problem of peak congestion, and then there’s the interest of people trying to get around all day,” said Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant who led the planning for the Cleveland changes.

But there are other ways in which everyone’s interests better align in a world where travel peaks aren’t so sharp. Less congested city streets could mean faster bus travel, more space for cyclists, and more humane commutes for the people who still drive.

 

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