COVID-19 didn't end driving, but mobility experts say it could spell the demise of rush hour

  • Travel and commuting nosedived in March when COVID-19 pandemic first hit the US.
  • Insider spoke with two mobility experts, Gary Hallgren of Arity, and Meera Joshi of Sam Schwartz, about how the pandemic has changed commuting. 
  • Driving has dropped by as much as 70%, but as it's starting to return, people the rush-hour commuting schedules they used to follow.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With stay-at-home mandates, social distancing, and lockdowns in effect everywhere, it's tough to get away on trip right now, to say nothing of regular commuting.

But as time goes on, it's becoming clear that the pandemic is reshaping not just how we get around now, but how we'll plan to do so in the future. During Business Insider's Tuesday : Transportation panel, senior editor Alex Davies spoke with Gary Hallgren, president of mobility data and analytics company Arity, and Meera Joshi, principal at urban design firm Sam Schwartz and former chair and of New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission. 

Using data collected across 23 million devices, including mobile phones and cars, Arity logs about a billion miles of driving data every two days. As much of the United States went into lockdown in March, the company statewide driving decrease by as much as 70% as people obeyed lockdown measures and stayed home. It's slowly starting to come back, though.

Worryingly, however, Arity found that despite a drop in overall traffic, there's been a 15% increase in high-speed driving. The risk of collisions has fallen, likely due to fewer cars being on the road, but the crashes that do happen are more severe because people are driving faster. That data matches up with the "free-for-all" on empty US roads that various law enforcement agencies noticed during the spring. 

of the biggest observed changes, Hallgren said, is when people are driving. Morning commutes have decreased dramatically and are still down about 20% across the country. Night and weekend driving have started coming back, though.

Joshi believes the pandemic will reshape the way we think about rush hour. Historically, you'd need to be at your office at around 9 in the morning, but the rise of working from home has all but eliminated the very idea of rush hour for those employees.

"On March 13 we were all like sardines on a subway," she said. "That may be a thing of the past for a very long time. Not because people are hesitant to get back on the subway, but now we have control over the cadence of our work. Do we need to honor a rush-hour system if it's proven to be not necessary anymore?"

People are still hesitant to ride trains, buses, and subways, despite a recent study conducted by Sam Schwartz — a transportation firm that tackles infrastructure and mobility issues — which found "no direct link between [public] transit and infection rates." 

That doesn't mean movement is down in urban areas. In New York City, Joshi said that traffic through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn, is actually greater now than it was in September of last year. She also noted that the scooter company Revel saw an increase in subscriptions and daily ridership during the pandemic. People are searching for alternative means of transportation to get where they need to go. 

Hallgren and Joshi agree that the pandemic has forced both people and companies to take a hard look at how commuting works. Hallgren questioned the necessity of long trips to and from work after this "grand experiment" that has made many realize they can do their jobs from home. 

Joshi reasoned that this could be an opportunity for states to rethink highway development. How many lanes will we need at the end of this? She doesn't want a world that finally leaves the pandemic only to find itself in an overly congested, highly polluted environment where people are driving faster and more aggressively.

"We can switch from one evil to another if we're not careful with how we plan to use this information," she said.   

You can watch the full panel on Youtube here.

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