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.