As a consequence of flattening the covid curve:
… we’ll also have to flatten these curves:
The hand-drawn chart above reveals the obvious: the morning and evening rush-hour peaks coming in and out of the CBD. Even though the chart was done in the late-1970s, the TV helicopters tell us it’s still true twice a day. At least they did until March 16.
Of course there has been one big change: there are less cars coming into the CBD than a half century ago:
Why is that green line below the blue one? Transit mainly. No SkyTrain or Frequent Transit Network back before Expo 86 – and since then, the region has largely accommodated growth in transportation demand by expanding transit supply. That allowed the existing road network to serve a larger population, increased jobs and more demands without having to build a lot more road space.
Simply put: without transit, the road system doesn’t work. Transit was our way of both serving population growth and taming motordom without having to build and expand the freeway and arterial network. It didn’t reduce congestion very much (as any commuter will attest) since drivers took advantage of a free good – road space – and pretty much filled it to the maximum anyway.
So what happens post-covid? Here’s a simple thought experiment, based on nothing but speculation. (That’s why PT asked for someone to model this.)
Transit has seen a drop in ridership of 80 percent. Past experience, even today in China, tells us that it will take some time for ridership to recover. And even if it does, there will be a lot less capacity to accommodate transit users, given the need for physical distancing.
Let’s be generous and say half the riders in that 80 percent drop return to transit. The other half decide to drive. They’ll certainly have the rationale: transit can be crowded and contagious, cars are clean and spacious, gas is cheap and roads are free.
There are also pluses and minuses to consider: how many will work from home, or not have any work to commute to? How much road space, particularly curb lanes, will be repurposed, especially to allow more distancing for pedestrians, cyclists and restaurant patios? How many job locations will disperse from the centre (and will that alleviate or worsen congestion)?
But here’s the critical question: what will be the impact on the roads and bridges of those additional numbers that do begin to commute by car, who will be competing for the modest amount of free road space available, especially if they all want it at roughly the same time?
Well, we should soon find out.
For that matter, it won’t be just commuters in vehicles. Commuters in trains too.
Top state and city officials (in New York) are already contemplating the need for radically different routines, including transit systems with limits on occupancy for trains and buses. That could require staggered shifts for millions of workers.
“I don’t know that it’s going to be possible to have rush hours,” said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates commuter trains to and from Manhattan.*
There really is only one practical way to address the resulting congestion, whether on trains, buses, roads or sidewalks.
Don’t have rush hour. Flatten that traffic curve.
If in the short term, there’s going to be a net increase in driving, the best case would be a redistribution of traffic across the day and across the network. Yes, it could in theory be done by road and transit pricing connected to apps that allow people to make informed decisions, adjusted as needed to flatten whatever peaks emerge (somewhat like flattening the covid curve to make sure hospitals are not overwhelmed).
But that assumes a social and political consensus (and the technology) to intervene, to rethink our priorities, make radical changes in how we live our lives, manage our transportation systems and respond to the previously unimaginable. A very unlikely scenario.
Except we just did.
*Why the Path to Reopening New York City Will Be So Difficult
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