A funny thing happened on my way to Alexandria recently. I had an appointment at 10 a.m. and, accustomed to Pre-COVID mind-numbing traffic jams, I left my home, about 35 miles south of Washington, about two hours before our meeting. Consider it conditioning, but that’s normal. If I was driving to Alexandria during the morning rush in the old days, some would probably argue that I should allow more time. The thing is, I was there early. Not just 15 minutes early — an hour early. People are working, but they’re not commuting. Which left me thinking, if this becomes permanent, even to a modest degree, maybe we should start to rethink some of our transportation planning.
Don’t worry, I am not trying to bill this as the “good side” of a pandemic, but hundreds of thousands of people in our area working at home — what does this mean for local transportation planning? Has the dynamic of going to work so totally changed that we may not need to make the same massive investments in transportation we have planned? I don’t know, but it’s something we need to consider.
That said, let’s take a look at the difference between the new stay-at-home approach to going to work and the traditional commuting model. Metrorail is a good place to start. It’s a multibillion-dollar system, requiring even more billions to upgrade and grow. However, it is now carrying about 10% of the volume of passengers it handled at this time last year. The curious thing is that lots of work is getting done. Projects are getting finished, employees are being hired and the government is up and running. It’s just that a large number of the staff aren’t physically present at a job site.
Does this mean that we don’t need to make the same massive transportation investments that we once did? Or, at least not to the same degree.
It would be nice, because it’s always been a losing game. Build a new expressway, add a lane, build a Metrorail extension, and in a few years, its running above capacity, at which point we start planning for the next big project.
Maybe it means we need to start rethinking the transportation investment plans we held as sacred in the pre-pandemic era. Not as many people are going to be commuting or traveling as they once did.
The pandemic will recede, but employers and employees will probably never view “going to work” quite the same again.
Let’s keep working those transportation ridership numbers some more. The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), the way I got to work for years, has been operating on an “S” schedule (that’s a special reduced service usually used in emergencies) since March and their ridership numbers are downright grim. It’s a wonderful service, but I don’t know how they’re paying the bills.
Amtrak, another part of our commuter network, and also a critical part of the Northeast corridor transportation infrastructure, has seen a massive drop off in riders.
Another part of our transportation infrastructure is facing a similar, or at least related problem. Governments and businesses are finding it easier and far cheaper to have conferences, meetings, training and even team building sessions online. It’s not the perfect answer — we still need to see people — but it saves a fortune in travel costs. Business travel, once the backbone of the airline industry, is down by three quarters. Will we go back to making lots of business trips? Some, yes, but not like we used to.
The impact, so far, has been that airlines are cancelling regular flights and have grounded hundreds of aircraft. Perhaps never to fly again. Airlines and airports have also laid off tens of thousands of personnel. The impact on future investment in airports, the size and number of airlines, the number of routes and the number of flights is likely to be substantial.
The world pivoted on a dime when the pandemic hit. There wasn’t anything gradual about it. But, one thing stood out. The virtual technology needed to change our relationship to work, school and even personal relationships, in a unique coincidence of timing, was ready to step in to fill the gap. And that technology, in the face of substantial demand, is only likely to get better. We aren’t going to return to the world as it was a few months ago. Societal and lifestyle changes resulting from COVID-19 could well be permanent.
So, as we look past tomorrow’s online meeting, our local and national leaders need to ask the question, “How is this new era going to impact the plans we had made to help you get to that next business meeting, or get you to work and home again?”