June 14, 2021

The Benefits of a Changing Rush Hour – Who, What and How

I’ve been waiting for the reports to start on what’s happening with rush hour.  First a few isolated ones, and then like rush hour itself, they’ll start to congest.  Here’s a condensation from the latest in The New York Times:


At this stage of the pandemic, it can feel as if much of life is hurtling back to old form — many of us will still be in the same job, the same city, the same home at the other end of all this. But the pandemic doesn’t have to radically change the future of work to make the decades-old problem of the peak commute perceptibly less miserable; a modest number of people working from home on a Thursday might do it.

That’s because roadway congestion is nonlinear. Each additional car doesn’t necessarily contribute equally to making traffic worse. Approaching a tipping point, a few more cars can strangle a highway. Similarly, removing a small share can unclog congestion.

Your discomfort on transit is nonlinear, too: Until all the seats are gone, more passengers don’t affect you much. But once the aisle starts to fill up, every new body erodes your personal space and compounds chaos at the boarding door. …

“So much of the central paradigm of transportation planning for the last two to three generations has been, ‘How do we make the peak of the peak suck less?’” said Christopher Forinash, a principal with the transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard. …

Americans have effectively built whole transportation systems around the 1 percent, he said — not the 1 percent of the rich, but the 1 percent of time when travel is at its worst.

Although, to be clear, these are related: Systems designed for peak travel are really designed for the more affluent, said Charles T. Brown, the C.E.O. of Equitable Cities, a planning and research firm. It’s disproportionately white-collar office workers, working in the central city and living in outlying neighborhoods or suburbs, who travel at these times. …

Lower peaks could mean more space on city streets for bike lanes and more equitable bus service, with more off-hours resources available for essential workers. It could mean improved traffic in urban cores, even as afternoon traffic worsens in suburbia.  Around metro Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, data from smartphones and navigation devices collected by the company StreetLight Data has shown a pronounced drop in the morning peak, and then a spreading of the old afternoon peak as remote workers trade traditional commutes for more local trips to the coffee shop or grocery store. …

Most miles driven in personal vehicles aren’t work commutes; nor are most trips on transit. But that travel has dominated transportation planning precisely because it has made for such unyielding demand spikes. …

Many big ideas in transportation involve trying to dislodge people from the peak. That’s the premise of congestion pricing, variable-priced toll lanes and higher peak-hour transit fares. It’s why local governments have “transportation demand management” programs that try to coax commuters to take up bike-share or varied work hours. …  (And then) induced demand kicks in: Commuters see a newly uncongested highway, and they shift back their behavior — from transit to cars, from off-peak hours to peak, from local roads to expressways — and fill it right back up again. …

The coronavirus pandemic, however, is no two-week Olympics, no localized earthquake. It has lasted so long that people have discovered new preferences and lost the muscle memory of old routines. We know that the longer disruption lasts, the more likely it is that long-term changes in society follow, said Giovanni Circella, a transportation researcher at the University of California, Davis. Disruption can also prove more lasting, he said, when it intensifies existing trends than when it creates entirely new ones. And the most notable trend in commuting for the last generation has been the steady rise of telework. …

In 1980, about 2.3 percent of workers said they usually telecommuted, according to census data. By 2018, it was 5.7 percent. Now researchers are projecting that share could double or more effectively overnight.

… the share of workers who expect to telecommute at least a few times each week is double what it was prepandemic. That’s a large increase in telecommuting, she said, without a large increase in people doing it full time.

Researchers at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Stanford and the University of Chicago predict that 20 percent of post-pandemic workdays will be done at home. Much has changed to encourage that shift, they say: The stigma of remote work has disappeared; workers and employers have sunk major investments into it; and the technology that enables it keeps improving. …

In cities where a larger share of workers once relied on transit, there’s a greater chance of transit riders shifting to cars, offsetting some of the gains on roadways from telework …

Teleworkers who used to commute by transit are also likely to find that small side trips they once took by foot or transit downtown — to lunch, to a meeting, to the pharmacy — require car trips in the suburbs. Or it’s possible some teleworkers will decide they don’t like having to get in the car for every errand, creating demand for more suburban amenities within walking distance. As David King, a professor at Arizona State, put it: “If I’m spending more time in my neighborhood, I’m going to demand a better neighborhood …

Even if we’ll all be back to prepandemic behavior within two years, the interim offers an opportunity to rethink how we invest in transportation …

The most obvious beneficiaries of all this would be telecommuters liberated from rush hour. That’s not hourly restaurant workers, late-shift janitors or nursing aides.

But the full promise of less spiky travel is that it could help them, too. That would happen if transit agencies were more focused on all-day service, or if infrastructure dollars weren’t heavily spent on highways that pollute poorer neighborhoods so rush-hour commuters can pass through.

“We should not design a system around the most privileged of our populations,” said Mr. Brown, of Equitable Cities. “If we are truly about servicing demand, Covid-19 showed who demanded it most.”

Early in the pandemic in San Francisco, transit officials scrapped service on many lines to focus on where essential workers travel. In Washington, the transit authority has begun to restore late-night service on many bus routes well before old schedules return on rush-hour trains.

“Inside almost every transit agency, inside its politics, inside its decision-making, there’s this inevitable conflict between the suburban commuter interest who’s trying to get out of congestion, who’s very focused on the problem of peak congestion, and then there’s the interest of people trying to get around all day,” said Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant …

But there are other ways in which everyone’s interests better align in a world where travel peaks aren’t so sharp. Less congested city streets could mean faster bus travel, more space for cyclists, and more humane commutes for the people who still drive.

And if all of this means some lower-income transit riders shift to driving on roads that are no longer quite so terrible?

“You know what?” said Mr. Forinash, the Nelson\Nygaard planner. “That’s OK.”

That might improve their lives, too.



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  1. We could also shift transit priority from traditional peak hours to give greater frequency to non-commuting users or outside traditional peak commuters. The peaks get more riders, yes, but they also get more service at greater cost. Compared with mid-day service that’s cheaper but with lower ridership, it’s not clear which time of day provides more efficient service (rider per cost of bus per hour); after seniors’ reduced fares and free-riding children are taken into account. It’s not apparent from the sum of fares collected.

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