Transportation Use Changes?

Only months ago, traffic congestion was frustrating people all over the Greater Boston area.  My top legislative priority was to advance the long-term transformation of our public transportation system to alleviate congestion and reduce carbon emissions.

The fundamental agenda of improving the reliability and service levels of the MBTA remains a top priority.   In the future, even if ridership remains low, better service will reduce crowding and so reduce the risk of disease transmission.  

The T has recognized that now is actually a great time to accelerate maintenance.   The T can shut down a subway line outright and shift people to buses without inconveniencing many people.  Ridership is down.  Replacement buses can be rented at low cost.   The roads are clear so the buses are not much worse than the subway.

The interesting question is whether our long term traffic patterns will change at all as a result of COVID-19.  It is too soon to tell, but I believe the answer depends on how medical science progresses.  Will COVID-19 turn out to be a disease for which a reliable vaccine can be developed?  Can we achieve herd immunity?  Can a reliable treatment can be developed? 

These are unknowns at this time, but my recent survey suggests that these issues matter a lot for the future of development and transportation.

Within the 1700+ respondents, 1070 were working outside the home before COVID-19 hit.  Unsurprisingly, that group has shrunk dramatically – currently it is down by 87%.  What is striking is that over half (53%) of those working outside the home before COVID-19 say that they expect to continue working from home “after businesses reopen, but before the discovery of a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.”

The work-from-home trend reduces both road and MBTA use.  MBTA use is further reduced by the special concern about disease transmission in crowded subway cars and buses.  Among those who, prior to COVID-19, were riding the MBTA at least one day per week, 61% say that they are too concerned about disease transmission to ride the MBTA, at least until doctors develop vaccines or better treatments for COVID-19.

Some have been concerned that the shift of riders off of the MBTA would result in an increase in road congestion.   At least within the sample that responded to my survey, that does not appear to be likely.  The work from home trend is sufficiently strong that road use is down even with some shifting from the MBTA.  In this sample, before COVID-19, only 17% were working from home but 56% expect to continue to work from home after businesses reopen.   As a result, total non-MBTA commuting in the sample is expected to go down by 28% — enough to substantially reduce congestion.

Taking as a given that no one knows how medical science will progress, I’m interested in starting a conversation about whether and how we should rethink our long term transportation agenda.

The part of the transportation vision that may most likely to need a reassessment is commuter rail.  Commuter rail ridership has dropped to near zero while bus ridership has “only” dropped 80%.  Affluent professionals riding the commuter rail may be among those most likely to continue to work from home over a much longer period.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

3 replies on “Transportation Use Changes?”

  1. So we have to limit riders, how they enter a bus and where they sit.
    But our Mass. Democrat rulers say four men can ride in a car to the golf course, but once there they can’t play together and can’t have a buddy ride in a Caddie.
    We can go to the beach but can’t play games with anyone. I ot a much needed haircut yesterday, but could not get my beard trimmed or a shampoo.
    Tell me how any of this makes any sense.
    Looks to me like the “new normal” is going to be more like the new Nazi Regime”.

    1. Re: East/West Rail
      The current State of Emergency and quarantine will pass. It may take a few years, but the need for public transportation will return. This lull in ridership will give us more time to fix the MBTA and develop true intercity rail.
      The Massachusetts DOT East/West Rail Study Committee is scheduled to meet June 10th to discuss the final options for further study. We must not lose interest in their work.
      I have set forth an Alternative 7 proposal to be included as one of the final three options to be studied.
      If you have not seen the proposal you can access it at If you have already seen it, I have updated it to answer some of the many questions I have received about the plan.
      We should not be distracted by the short term hardships of our current situation, as tragic as it has been. Transportation projects are long term matters that take years to develop and implement.
      Let’s not squander the extra time we have and the momentum of Federal infrastructure funding that is on the horizon.
      Thanks for all your work on transit issues.

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