COVID-19 trends impacting the future of transportation planning and research
TRB Executive Director Neil Pedersen recently shared insights on how the transportation industry has been impacted by and will continue to be shaped by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) global pandemic. He presented Thursday, August 13 at the closing plenary session of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) virtual annual meeting.
Pedersen shared a number of statistics on how different modes are performing in comparison to last year and then honed in on some of the behavioral changes that will determine what happens with transportation in the future. Throughout the presentation, the audience of transportation engineers took polls to make their own predictions on 2021 performances.
Impacts on aviation
Starting with aviation, which was seeing increases on the order of 4-8% per year between 2015 and 2019, he shared Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Checkpoint numbers from April and July 2020. At the pandemic’s peak in the United States, there was a 96% reduction in air travelers, which had shifted to a 73% reduction by mid-summer. Freight airlines are taking advantage of the increases in e-commerce to drive current business.
“That V-shaped recovery we’ve heard about has not yet shown itself. I have seen projections that it will take several years to fully recover,” said Pederen.
He noted that the length of the economic recovery, virtual substitutions for in-person business travel, and potential changes in leisure travel behavior will all play a role along with public confidence in flying. “It’s important to remember the confidence is going to be based on both reality and perceptions.”
Aviation researchers may find guidance in the TRB Airport Cooperative Research Program’s (ACRP) following resources:
An article on the consolidation of airport connectivity in the U.S. published in TRB’s journal, Transportation Research Record (TRR), may also prove useful for looking forward.
Participants then took the following poll:
One year from now, what will be TSA Checkpoint Travel Numbers as a percentage of 2019 numbers?
Half of the respondents selected B. 50-70%. About a quarter selected option A, just over a fifth selected option C. and only 3% selected option D.
Impacts on public transportation
Turning to public transportation, Pedersen pointed out that ridership gradually decreased between 2015 and 2019 by 7.3% nationally. TRB’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Analysis of Recent Public Transit Ridership Trends looked at recent pre-pandemic norms in depth.
In July 2020, Transit App showed a 58% national reduction in travelers from 2019, Pedersen noted. In Washington D.C., those numbers are higher, with a 66% reduction on Metrobus and 90% reduction on Metrorail. New York MTA’s commuter rail is showing some of the greatest declines in ridership. It had a ridership reduction of around 95% in the spring and is still down around 78-84% from last year at same time.
Factors that transit will have to confront include the reality and perception of safety in crowded cars and stations, potential long-term teleworking that may draw employees and office leases away from Central Business Districts (CBDs), the availability of government subsidies to make up for reduced ridership, and equity issues that are too clear to ignore.
Equity, in particular, could play a major role. In a discussion with ITE international president Randy McCourt, Pedersen said, “Transit is key to providing access to opportunity. If you look at the use of rail versus the bus system in the Washington Metro Area, it just shows how important the bus system is for providing opportunity for the economically disadvantaged.” McCourt added that “the core mission of transit will probably now blend a lot more equity into it.”
Pedersen said, “We need to be rethinking where and how transit is going. We need to be looking at how to better integrate Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) into first- and last-mile connections, especially so that we are reaching the economically disadvantaged and people who cannot work from home. To their credit, many transit agencies recognized early on in the pandemic where their ridership was traveling and they did rapid adjustments to ensure that they were routing to where essential workers live and work.”
Participants then took the following poll:
One year from now, what will nationwide transit ridership be as a percentage of 2019 numbers?
Nearly half of the respondents selected option A. 50-65%. Most others selected option B. 65-80%. Only 7% of respondents selected option C. and even fewer (only 2%) selected option D.
“It feels like COVID-19 will have a bigger impact on transit than any other mode,” Pedersen said.
On the other hand, in response to another question from McCourt, Pedersen pointed out that Europe has recovered more quickly from the pandemic. People there seem more willing to use transit and virus transmission via transit has not appeared to be an issue.
Pedersen mentioned his involvement in a study in the Washington DC area of dedicated bus lanes and the major impact the lanes can provide in terms of reliability and improvements for passengers planning their time around the new efficiency. “I see more benefits for trying to build more transit-only lanes than mixing those lanes with freight or other special uses.”
A number of active projects from TRB’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) may produce forthcoming research that could be particularly useful for those seeking to plan for transit:
Additionally, the TRB National Cooperative Highway Research Program’s (NCHRP) Forecasting Transportation Revenue Sources: Survey of State Practicescan shed insight on sources of revenue.
Impacts on individual travel
Moving to personal vehicles, Pedersen said that passenger car travel has increased steadily around 1-2% per year during the past several years prior to COVID-19. Since the pandemic began it was reduced from 2019 by 77% in April, but only 11% by the end of July based on data from Inrix.
Ride-hailing TNCs’ profitability was a challenge even before the pandemic. There had been sizable increases in ridership, particularly in CBDs and to airports, but in March, Uber reported ridership was down 94%. Uber has shifted to food delivery to make up for the losses although they are seeing gradual increases in TNC ridership again, but ridership is still much lower than before the pandemic.
Micromobility saw major increases in usage pre-pandemic, but Pedersen reported that, from March through May, bikeshare ridership was down 44% in the eight largest systems and that some have left markets altogether.
Forthcoming research from TRB NCHRP may point researchers in new directions by understanding current micromobility practice and policies in the U.S. as well as understanding the investments and benefits of active transportation construction in combination with other roadworks.
Impacts on freight
Goods have still been moving despite downturns elsewhere. Pedersen noted that trucking had reported steady growth pre-pandemic, rising at a faster rate than passenger travel, but long-haul truck traffic was down 10% nationwide in April. By July, that reduction was cut in half, although metro areas saw decreases of 25% in the spring and are still at about 7% reduced now, based on Inrix data.
“Driver shortages have become a pretty serious issue and will continue to be in the future,” noted Pedersen. He commented that due to increases in e-commerce, there have been “major impacts on traffic at distribution centers and last-mile deliveries,” as well as an increased use of robots and drones for these tasks.
Port use and revenue has decreased as a result of the pandemic. Port tonnage had been increasing yearly before the pandemic, but in May 2020, containerized cargo at ports was reduced 20-25% and bulk cargo movements at U.S. ports were down 15-25% from last year, per the American Association of Port Authorities.
Before the pandemic, rail freight had been in a slow, steady decline since mid-2018, but total rail traffic reduced 23% in April from 2019, according to the Association of American Railroads. By the end of July, it was still down about 12.8%, although the declines are highly dependent on the type of cargo. Metallic ores and metals along with coal saw reductions of nearly 30%.
Pedersen remarked on how the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities of the supply chain, particularly suppliers relying on foreign sources from a single country. “A lot of companies are re-thinking their supply chain system, either to on-shoring where they find domestic supply sources or spreading out their suppliers between different countries. We really need to follow what they’re doing, because it’s going to have a big impact.”
The TRB National Freight Cooperative Research Program’s (NCRFP) Freight Transportation Resilience in Response to Supply Chain Disruptionscan offer insights to the current situation. NCHRP’s Challenges to CV and AV Applications in Truck Freight Operations also sheds light on an area that shows new advantages. NCHRP’s forthcoming research will also provide resources for these new challenges:
Impacts on travel behavior
Pedersen repeatedly mentioned how a few underlying behavioral changes will play a role in predicting the future of multiple forms of transportation. One of these is the potential of greatly increasing telework to be a much more regular occurrence for a significant portion of the workforce. Pedersen cited a University of California Institute of Transportation Studies survey that found before COVID-19, about 10% of the workforce teleworked full time and 68% traveled to an office full time in eight U.S. metropolitan areas. Survey results showed during the pandemic half of all persons responding indicated that they teleworked five days a week.
ITE Annual Meeting participants were asked:
One year from now, what percent of employees will telework at least three days a week?
About 40% of respondents predicted option D. >30%. About a third selected option C and less than a quarter selected option B. Only 7% selected option A.
“The biggest impact telework is going to have is on peak period congestion and transit directed toward CBDs,” predicted Pedersen. “The big unknown is at what rate people will go back to using transit, at least until we have a widely available vaccine.”
Another big behavioral change that could have long-lasting implications for transportation is online shopping. E-commerce has done the opposite of most transportation. Personal online shopping had grown from 10% of the retail market in 2017 to 16% before COVID-19 hit the U.S. It nearly doubled in April and was still about about 57% higher in June, according to Bazaar Voice Network.
Participants were polled to make their own predictions:
One year from now, what percentage of retail shopping will be via e-commerce?
About 46% of respondents chose option D. >30%. A third chose option C. Nearly a fifth selected option B. and only 2% chose option A. McCourt noted that the pandemic took a trend, like the emerging decline of shopping malls, and put the accelerator down.
Another question from an attendee brought up the changes in carbon emissions from decreased traffic at the height of the stay-at-home orders. “I wonder what effect this is going to have on our transition to electric vehicles. That’s going to the largest impact on reducing emissions. Those of us in single family homes know it’s pretty easy to plug in, but it’s a different issue for those who park on the street,” said Pedersen.
“This is where public policy can be very effective, but it will depend on what elected officials’ priorities are.”
As all aspects of transportation deal with the unfolding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are research needs, gaps, and potential ways to leverage innovation revealing themselves across all modes, systems, and disciplines in transportation. In keeping with the mission of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to provide trusted, timely, impartial, and evidenced-based information exchange and research, TRB has issued an urgent and directed call for Research Needs Statements specific to Transportation and Pandemics. Share your expertise today.
TRB reports cited in this article:
ACRP Web-Only Document 22: Passenger Value of Time, Benefit-Cost Analysis and Airport Capital Investment Decisions, Volume 1: Guidebook for Valuing User Time Savings in Airport Capital Investment Decision Analysis
Active projects cited in this article:
Resources published in TRR:
Additional TRB resources:
TRB virtual event recordings:
Upcoming TRB events:
External sources cited in this article
The impact of COVID-19 on e-commerce by category, Bazaarvoice
Inrix weekly blog
Bikeshare Ridership Down 44% During COVID-19, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation
New York Metropolitan Transit Authority