Commuting in the region remains well below pre-pandemic levels and there’s little consensus on when, or if, commuting patterns in Northern Virginia will return to what they were.
A new report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s Transportation Planning Board details the numerous ways people’s travel habits changed from the onset of the pandemic to November, when regional roadway traffic volumes actually ticked down again for the first time since April, though by a much smaller margin.
April 2020 saw roadway traffic in the metro Washington area fall by a staggering 50.5% over the same month in 2019. In November, the last month for which the Transportation Planning Board report had numbers, traffic was down 18.5% from November 2019, slightly more than the 17.4% decline from October to October.
Transit ridership, of course, has also seen a steep decline, although it’s been most concentrated in commuter bus networks and rail service. As of Dec. 1, most local bus services in the region -- including those in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William Counties -- are carrying more than half of the riders they did last year. By comparison, Virginia Railway Express and MARC rail in Maryland are serving only 10% of the riders they did, and the Potomac and Rappahannock Regional Transportation Commission’s commuter bus lines are seeing ridership at 25% of pre-pandemic levels.
Tim Canan, MWCOG’s director of planning data who presented the report at Thursday’s board meeting, was quick to point out that service had also been drastically reduced, which would naturally keep comparatively low even if demand was slowly returning.
“It’s very important to interpret this data a little bit differently than we would just looking at decreased traffic volumes in the region,” Canan said. “Decreases in the use of public transportation, while very much caused by decreases in demand, are also in part a function of service capacity or service operations. … Transit providers have had to implement social distancing requirements within their vehicles as well as reduce services in some areas.”
As evidenced by the bigger declines in commuter transit systems, the drop-offs in transit ridership and traffic are the result of job losses in the region and the proliferation of telework for many higher-wage industries.
CARES Act funding helped most transit agencies avoid serious budget reductions that would have been caused by the dramatic increase in free service provided during the pandemic. The December stimulus and appropriations bills provided $27 billion for transit systems across the country, helping networks avoid permanent service reductions caused by smaller jurisdictional funding, lower gas tax revenues and lasting ridership effects of the pandemic. But more money from the federal government to stave off significant cutbacks down the road.
The region’s job losses, like in the rest of the country, have been heavily concentrated in service industries. Employment data showed that between November 2019 and 2020, the metropolitan Washington region saw losses of roughly 66,000 jobs in food services and 78,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality. The federal government, on the other hand, for which many employees in the region can work from home, grew by about 9,000 jobs.
But even when the economy returns to health, some level of those declines will likely remain. According to regional survey of 180 employers or “worksites” (of which 45% came from Virginia, 43% from Maryland and 12% from D.C.) presented to MWCOG last September, 20% of responding worksites planned to continue telework at pandemic levels and 37% said more employees would be working more hours from home than before the pandemic. Only 12% of worksites that responded said they would return to pre-pandemic telework levels.
Another concerning data point presented by Canan was that while roadway traffic had declined significantly since the pandemic began, majo roadway incidents haven’t seen nearly the same decrease. The Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination, which tracks weekday incidents in the region, reported just a small drop-off in major incidents it tracked, from 203 to 187, from 2019 to 2020. And in Northern Virginia, fatal car crashes have remained at roughly the same levels as in 2019, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The presentation at Thursday’s board meeting was largely informational; no decisions were made about how the group’s priorities might change when the pandemic subsides. But some members said that an opportunity to change commuting behavior might exist in the moment where so many behaviors have changed and will change when the pandemic is over.
“I think we’ve got to start figuring out, ‘OK, which of these trends do we want to support? Which of these trends do we want to reverse?’” said Falls Church Councilmember David Snyder, the city's representation to the Transportation Planning Board.