February 12, 2021

No Rush Hour, No Transit? The Pandemic Ultimatum

An insightful survey from Slate:

The prevailing sense of doom comes from a dawning awareness that the old workday travel patterns are not going to snap back into place when the pandemic subsides.

(In San Francisco, the Salesforce) software company’s “chief people officer” outlined new work policies. “The 9-to-5 workday is dead,” he wrote. Most employees will be in the office between one and three days a week. Twitter, another San Francisco tech employer, has announced an indefinite work-from-home policy. The situation looks similar in New York, D.C., Chicago, and other major U.S. cities.

Last month, the transportation scholar David Levinson asked: What if downtowns never come back? In Sydney, where Levinson teaches, the virus is contained. Car traffic has returned to normal, but transit use is down about 40 percent from last year. …

Asking a transit agency to operate without rush hour is like asking a restaurant to operate without dinner service. Most systems are built to serve a downtown core and managed to serve peak demand. And it was during that peak that transit agencies collected most of their fares.

Rush-hour travel to a concentrated area is also the scenario in which transit best rivals driving on cost and convenience, thanks to jam-packed roads and expensive parking rates …

Peak-hour transit is a blessing and a curse.

Picture a 10-lane road with sparse traffic, said Zakhary Mallett, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California who studies peak-hour transit. Just as roads are built to accommodate maximum rush-hour traffic and then spend many hours looking overbuilt, so transit has become bloated to meet peak demand. “We build a ton of capacity and buy a ton of vehicles for the peak of the peak,” he said. “Peak service is extremely expensive when you consider capital costs. My hypothesis is that peak period travel, after you account for capital costs, is more expensive than off-peak—even after accounting for revenues.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to downsize on a dime. The resale market for trains is not good, and there’s no undoing peak-oriented capital projects …

But some peak-hour expenses could be wound down, such as labor inefficiency. “When you see a full bus or train running one direction [at rush-hour], I always picture it half-empty,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit planner in Portland, Oregon, because it must be run back with no passengers. For employees, peak shifts are short. They drag operators into the city center. Even if you’d like to leave the vehicles there for the afternoon rush, you’ve got to get the workers back to where they came from. …

Not surprisingly, catering to peak commuters means tailoring transit toward the needs of a whiter, wealthier, and more male cohort than straphangers at large. In the 2018 study of New York, the rush-hour commuter group was 52 percent college-educated with a median income of $42,300. The before-sunrise crowd, by contrast, was 31 percent college-educated with a median income of $35,000. The second group also featured more foreign-born workers and more minorities.

off-peak riders are more likely to bail when service gets worse. This has been borne out over the past decade, as bus riders have fled transit in response to U.S. cities’ inability (or lack of desire) to rise to global transit standards and liberate buses from traffic with dedicated streets or lanes. …

Unfortunately, many cities have spent billions to reinforce transit’s rush-hour, downtown functionality—and many of those costs are sunk. Downtown business interests and long-haul office commuters have been powerful advocates in getting public money committed to new projects. How much effort will be spent to recover rush-hour riders after the pandemic instead of experimenting to pull in, for example, teenagers or seniors or grocery shoppers or other underserved groups? Does the transit coalition stay intact when the raison d’être is ensuring mobility without cars in general and on a regional scale, rather than specifically reinforcing the centrality and viability of downtown? …

In the long run, Walker said, moving away from the twin camel humps of the morning and evening rush would be a great thing for transit operators who have historically shelled out for both capital and operating expenses to meet peak demand.

If those trips vanish, urban transit will have a short window to reinvent itself. The pandemic may be a chance to reset. It may also be an ultimatum.

Full article here.

Posted in


If you love this region and have a view to its future please subscribe, donate, or become a Patron.

Share on


  1. The pendulum will swing back.

    Many people want to live or work in cities. More energy. More entertainment. More restaurants.

    Many prefer to not work from home as too small or too many distractions with partner and/or kids at home too more.

    It’s early days.

    Vaccine rollout currently weak but a year from now or two things will be more normal again.

    Transit supply need to be adjusted to somewhat changed demand, of course. We might even charge for road use as we see ever more EVs who don’t pay gasoline surcharges to subsidize public transit.

    Add the new e-drone taxis and AVs and commuting will change – initially for the affluent but later for the masses – making homes further out even more desirable, but that is a debate for the 2030s and 2040s !

  2. I bought an electric bike to avoid being on a crowded bus in the morning. Likely to stick with it even after the pandemic clears as it has also became my form of exercise and getting fresh air.

  3. This may not be a new phenomenon.
    Is there an analogy to when people switched en masse from streetcars to private automobiles?
    (i.e. drop in ridership due to change in/availability of technology)

  4. There will be a return to peaks but it won’t be as pronounced as ‘the before times’. If the average number of employee days-in-office goes from 5 to even 4.5, this is a huge reduction in the number of cars on the road on any given day. This introduces two interesting scenarios:

    1. What happens to downtown vacancy rates and per sq.ft. costs with reduced demand? Many employers will expect a return to 5 days/ week in their offices but not all. More flexible workplace arrangements are a huge opportunity to reduce companies’ floor area footprint and costs while still retaining a downtown presence.

    2. Almost every decision related to traditional transportation policy is based on mitigating the peak-hour ‘worst case scenario’. With less peak traffic to mitigate, will cities adjust their formulae, forego this method entirely, or just pretend covid never happened and forecast all future peaks extended from 2019 trends?

Subscribe to Viewpoint Vancouver

A fresh look at the history and future of our region.

Join 7,254 other subscribers

Show your Support

Make a one-time donation, or check our Patreon page for stylish coffee mugs, private city tours, and more. Thank you for helping shape this place we love.

Popular Articles

See All

All Articles