Published: March 13, 2020
Last Updated: March 23, 2020
Here at Kittelson, we’re joining organizations around the world in closely monitoring recommendations surrounding COVID-19 and making the best real-time decisions we can to protect our staff, our clients, and our surrounding communities.
But you don’t need another article to remind you that the spread of COVID-19 is affecting many of the decisions we’re making throughout the day. Specifically, we’re here to zero in on decisions related to travel and mode choice, and the resulting patterns, to answer this question: How is the coronavirus changing travel patterns, and what is the resulting environmental impact?
Transit ridership numbers have dropped significantly due to an increase in remote work and a fear of the close contact with strangers that comes with trains, buses, and transit stops. In the Seattle area, Sound Transit reports being down roughly 50% over all modes of transit, and King County Metro reports a 45% drop in ridership since social distancing recommendations went into effect. Ridership in New York’s MTA system continues to dramatically decline, with buses carrying 50% fewer riders and subway carrying 60% fewer riders in year-over-year comparisons. BART ridership in San Francisco is down as much as 89%.
The CDC says your risk for catching the virus increases if you are near an infected person “for a prolonged period of time,” so maximizing peak hour service for transit providers is important to keep people moving quickly. A transit passenger may be at higher risk waiting on the platform with others for an extended period of time than they are riding a crowded bus or train for a short distance. For this reason, agencies like Boston’s MBTA announced plans to increase service and frequency of buses on some transit lines. Although they are asking riders to only use public transit if necessary, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak says, “We recognize that some employees in key industries, including those in the medical community, rely on the MBTA to get to their places of work and we’re committed to providing service to those folks who rely on the T.”
Bicycling and Scootering
The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, reported that bike sharing platforms throughout China have experienced rising demand due to the disease outbreak. “The epidemic has highlighted the advantages of bike-sharing – open air and no crowd gathering – which are helpful to curb the spread of the coronavirus,” the article quotes. US cities are seeing a similar uptick.
Some cities globally are instituting emergency bike lane and bike share expansions. The City of Bogota, Colombia is one of them. During the week, they’re temporarily converting traffic lanes into bicycle lanes. The mayor cites air pollution from cars, trucks, and motorcycles as putting more pressure on a healthcare system that’s already heavily impacted from the virus. Commuting via bicycle helps to keep the air clean and minimize contact with other travelers.
E-scootering is another way to get around while minimizing contact; however, as local governments place more restrictions on travel to slow the spread of the virus, e-scooter companies are responding by temporarily suspending service in cities around the world. Lime announced it is “winding down or pausing” service in 23 countries, including parts of the United States. Bird is pausing service in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Portland, Miami, and Coral Gables and has pulled its scooters from all of its European markets.
In cities where scooters are still in operation, equitable e-scooter distribution is important so that all community members have access to necessities. In a webinar put on by Ride Report, Meg Young, Baltimore City Micromobility Coordinator, reported that the City is directing micromobility providers to redistribute scooters at food distribution centers to increase ease of access.
On February 20, The International Air Transport Association announced that its initial assessment of the impact of the coronavirus outbreak showed a potential 13% full-year loss of passenger demand for carriers in the Asia-Pacific region. On March 11, the US Department of State raised its worldwide travel advisory to Level 3, asking US citizens to reconsider traveling abroad, and President Trump announced new travel restrictions from Europe. On the morning of Wednesday, March 18, the United States and Canada announced that they will suspend non-essential travel between the two countries. on March 19, the Department of State raised its global travel advisory to Level 4, advising U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel.
Around the world, as flights are canceled, plans are postponed, and businesses ask their employees to limit work travel, the airline industry is taking a tremendous toll. The Global Business Travel Association estimates that spending on travel around the world could drop by more than 37%, costing the industry nearly $560 billion in a year. United Airlines announced a 60% schedule reduction in April. Delta is reducing flights by 70%. And the private aviation industry is also suffering.
In the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, however, there was one generation snapping up the cheap flights. The “coronavacation” describes the phenomenon that spread among millennials, who did not see the risk of exposure as a deterrent to taking advantage of reduced fares on plane tickets. As travel bans increase in number and magnitude, however, it remains to be seen how many of these flights will actually be taken.
A surge in remote work and a hesitance to travel means fewer cars are on the road, too. On March 13, USA Today reported a 64.2% decline in Seattle traffic, 58.5% decline in San Francisco traffic, and 13.2% decline in Los Angeles traffic when comparing March 11, 2020 to March 11, 2019.
These abnormal traffic patterns are already scrapping traffic engineering data collection and studies. With schools out of session and many localities in state of emergency, traffic patterns will take a while to return to normal. (Read our thoughts on obtaining traffic counts to keep your projects moving.)
“It’s too soon to call what we’re seeing a “trend”- technically, trends require lots of time and data, but as the weeks march on it’s pretty clear the demand on the highway system is lighter,” writes DiAngelea Millar on the WSDOT Blog, after describing a “sharp decrease on all Seattle area highways.”
In the early days of COVID-19 detection in China, several mobility service companies reacted quickly to launch services meeting urgent requests. DiDi Chuxing, the largest Chinese mobility service provider, organized a team of 1,336 ride-hailing drivers to provide emergency services to the medical workforce in Wuhan. To help keep drivers and passengers safe, some companies built disinfection stations for on-demand mobility vehicles.
Globally, Uber is considering suspending the accounts of riders and drivers who have been infected or come in contact with COVID-19.
There are several factors that will impact ride-hailing patterns, including drivers not being comfortable picking up passengers, and a decrease in demand. “With companies… advising employees to work from home and conferences and other events being canceled every day, demand for rides in many big cities has dropped,” says NPR. Uber’s CFO says its ridership has decreased by as much as 50% in cities hit hard by the coronavirus.
Uber and Lyft have taken steps to protect drivers and passengers, including offering supplies to disinfect cars, pausing shared rides service to follow public health guidance, and announcing plans to financially compensate drivers who test positive for COVID-19—however, as drivers are classified as independent contractors who are ineligible for benefits, this puts workers’ rights at the forefront of the conversation for Uber and Lyft.
While fewer people may be out commuting or otherwise traveling on our streets, there is one type of vehicle that’s driving around even more than usual: delivery trucks. This, of course, is due to the surge in online shopping as customers rush to order supplies in bulk and online. Amazon has been struggling to meet expected delivery times as they strive to keep up with “panic buying” and is planning to hire 100,000 additional workers to meet the surge in demand.
Food delivery services have been staying busy as well. Many other delivery services have launched no-contact delivery options, where food is dropped off at the doorstep rather than exchanged in person. Instacart, DoorDash, and Postmates have also announced new policies to financially help workers if they have to miss work due to COVID-19.
The demand on delivery services and the need for minimal contact provides an interesting opportunity for another type of delivery service: driverless delivery. In China, local authorities are offering incentives to fund the purchase and operation of driverless delivery vans. Neolix, a driverless delivery business, has booked orders for more than 200 vehicles in the past two months.
“Amid the virus anxiety that has disrupted businesses and supply chains, China’s push into autonomous transport and the future of delivery is getting an unexpected boost,” writes Bloomberg.
Following suit, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed changes to safety requirements in the U.S. that could accelerate the development and rollout of autonomous vehicles without human controls.
Another choice that impacts travel patterns is the choice to telecommute. Because, by definition, telecommuting means not traveling to attend a meeting or work day physically, the increase in remote connection impacts all modes of transportation we’ve described here.
At Kittelson, the majority of our staff are now working from home, and we’ve made sure we all have the equipment needed to work remotely if needed. With some states under “shelter in place” orders, schools announcing closures, and social distancing recommendations from the CDC, it’s clear we should all be prepared to transition to remote work if we haven’t already.
Additionally, telemedicine is taking off, in part because many health care providers are looking for ways to prevent bringing infected people into contact with immune-compromised or otherwise vulnerable individuals by introducing initial screenings via teleconference.
Impact of COVID-19 on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Due to the strong link between transportation and greenhouse gas emissions, we were curious to track the impact to our environment from these changing travel patterns, and thought you might be too.
In China, where employees of industrial facilities and coal-fired power plants have stayed home, air pollution levels have dropped by roughly a quarter. According to NASA, levels of nitrogen dioxide in eastern and central China were down as much as 30% from what is normally observed during this time period.
In an appearance on France 24’s The Debate, François Gemenne, Director of the Hugo Observatory, pointed out the health implications of reduced atmospheric pollution. The World Health Organization estimates the global toll of air pollution to be 7 million. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is still shrouded in unknowns, but Gemenne stated that early numbers indicate the decrease in pollution from lockdowns and social distancing could potentially save thousands of lives.
The uptick in active transportation (bicycling, scootering, and walking) along with an increase in working remotely is a positive force for reducing greenhouse gases. Results from driving patterns may be mixed, as social distancing could lead to increased car dependency, but likely to fewer miles traveled overall. And of course, a reduction in flights has tremendous impact on carbon emissions. A passenger flying from New York to San Francisco is responsible for 1,300 pounds of CO2, or about as much as it would be emitted by manufacturing 29,000 plastic bags.
This in no way diminishes the severity or loss of life from the coronavirus pandemic, but the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is something we’ve needed for a long time.
Apply Caution and Good Judgment
Ultimately, the responsibility lies with all of us to exercise critical thinking and good judgment as we move through these next few weeks. When selecting your next mode of transportation, consider how you can respect the people around you through your transportation decisions – which may include not traveling at all.