How Will the “COVID Years” Change How We Travel?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every part of our lives, including how we get from place to place, whether locally or globally. Many of the health, economic, and social policy challenges we face in 2020, an unprecedented year, will undoubtedly extend for years to come.

Looking at transportation data and studying how, when, where, and why we are traveling as we move into the future will inform solutions to developing transportation policies to meet the demands of the “new normal.” “There may be long-lasting changes in travel patterns because of COVID-19,” notes James Jenness, Ph.D., Associate Director and Manager of Human Factors Research in Westat’s Center for Transportation, Technology & Safety Research.

“The public will want less person-to-person interaction to travel, something that may continue for a long time. Tools like large-scale field studies, observational studies, and household travel surveys can help gauge where we are in the short term and how we move through this crisis and forward,” notes Dr. Jenness. “These studies can be done locally, regionally, even nationally, coupled with stringent statistical analysis and evaluation.” This research will inform resource-strained regions about the new normal of travel, helping policymakers find solutions within the confines of tighter budgets, to be more resource efficient and effective while enhancing the safety of the traveling public.

How We Travel

Public transportation—buses, light rail, and subways—will continue to be challenged as they remain functioning yet with significantly reduced ridership, incurring additional operating expenses for increased cleaning and disinfecting. Will transit riders be willing to wear masks? Travel at nonpeak times? Feel confident about protocols for increased cleaning? “We will face a challenge to restore confidence in public transit,” notes Dr. Jenness. “People who have a choice may prefer the sanctity of their own vehicle, like a safety bubble, and in some cities we are seeing people seek out and use alternative modes of transportation such as bicycles and electric bikes that allow for some degree of social distance. For longer trips, where air travel used to be the norm, we may see more people choosing to drive themselves. The current low price of gasoline also makes this attractive.”

Here, again, the answers to these questions rely on research. Tools like online surveys that can drill down into the public’s comfort level will be key. Smartphone apps can gather and deliver survey data of up-to-date travel and real-time activity. Household travel surveys at local and state levels can develop models of travel demand and forecasting, as well as transportation planning activities. These surveys can collect detailed sociodemographic data and detailed travel behavior data, pinpointing areas of particular concern and how travel activity and behavior change over time.

Travelers’ Behavior

Despite fewer vehicles on the interstates and regional roads due to the stay-at-home orders in a majority of states, traffic safety has become a major problem. Crashes are down, but the ones that occur are more severe. “Speeding, driving aggressively, and increased risk-taking are the most common reasons,” notes Jeremiah Singer, a Westat research associate. “People have the opportunity to speed due to the largely empty roadways,” he explains, “but the level of extreme speeding has become a significant problem, with people being ticketed going 100 mph and above on a regular basis.”

Mr. Singer has done extensive research on driver behavior, distraction, attention, and opinions in on-road, closed-course, as well as laboratory research. “People are stressed,” he notes. “People are stressed by personal health issues, personal economic issues, and add to it the stay-at-home orders and, now, stay-at-home fatigue. It will be important to study how these effects are piling up on driver behavior.” Researchers can tap into publically available data on speeding and other violations to get a clear picture of what’s actually going on out there on the roads. Following up with online surveys about behavior will provide significant insight.

And behavior behind the wheel is also affecting pedestrians. More people are choosing to walk or bike rather than potentially exposing themselves to the virus on public transit. The combination of more people walking and biking, plus the increase in drivers speeding, well, it’s a recipe for big problems. “Pedestrian and vehicle interaction,” notes Mr. Singer, “might result in more severe incidents, more fatalities. Observational field studies, on-road studies, lab studies, online focus groups, and interviews will provide answers to what is going on.”

We ask more questions than we can answer here, but the data will point the way to those answers. These “COVID-19 years” cannot compare to previous data. There are no apples-to-apples comparisons here. Federal, state, and local governments and the commercial sector will benefit by relying on the tools of transportation research to find a new road through the “new normal.”

Tools like large-scale field studies, observational studies, and household travel surveys can help gauge where we are in the short term and how we move through this crisis and forward.

- James Jenness, Ph.D., Westat Associate Director, Manager of Human Factors Research, Center for Transportation, Technology & Safety Research

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