The temporary shutdown of businesses and the forced telecommuting implemented by major employers in the central Puget Sound region has resulted in a tremendous decrease in the number of vehicles on previously congested corridors.
Although traffic is expected to increase as the state gradually reopens business activity, recent surveys show a potentially dramatic shift in how workers want to commute –particularly those who rely on buses or light rail services. Some transportation analysts say the situation presents an opportunity to reexamine future transit investments and the role telecommuting can play in relieving traffic congestion.
A new report by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) reveals that since the COVID-19 outbreak in early March, highway traffic as of May 27 has dropped by 22 percent. However, WSDOT Assistant Secretary Marshall Elizor at the Joint Transportation Committee’s (JTC) May 21 meeting did clarify that while the data compares traffic from the same dates in 2019, the days fall in different parts of the week.
The low point was on March 29, when overall highway traffic was down by 63 percent compared to the same day last year. In Puget Sound, traffic on the State Route 520 Bridge as of May 27 has fallen by 64 percent and by 45 percent on the Interstate 90 Floating Bridge. Traffic at toll facilities and on ferry services has plummeted by 54 percent, while transit ridership is down by 64 percent.
While highway traffic is slowly creeping toward 2019 levels, mass transit has stagnated due to ongoing health concerns.
As a result, Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost said during a May 27 virtual webinar that though it’s hard to measure long-term impact, “some ridership losses will likely not be recovered. People are planning on making significant changes in the way they go about their lives and work.”
According to a new survey by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, of the 25,000 people polled, more than 20 percent who regularly used transit would no longer use it, while 28 percent said they would use it less often. Over 50 percent of respondents said would either stop using ridesharing apps or rely on them less, and 25 percent said they plan to only travel in a personal vehicle.
IBM Services Senior Managing Partner Jesus Mantas said in a statement that the study “provides further evidence that COVID-19 is permanently altering U.S. consumer behavior. There are long term implications of the new consumer behaviors for industries like retail, transportation, and travel among others. These organizations need to quickly adapt their business models to serve the new consumer behaviors in order to survive and thrive.”
Frost said these findings offer a chance “for transit agencies to partner with companies….to offer people the most direct, the most safe, and the most cost-effective trip” from their home to their work.
Prior to COVID-19, companies such as Microsoft and Boeing offered alternative commuting options for workers. Microsoft’s Connector bus service had 4,300 riders per day on 23 routes, while Community Transit provided Boeing employees with transit routes between Everett and Bothell. The two companies alone employ roughly 125,000 people in the central Puget Sound region.
One of the most striking results of IBM’s survey was the growing preference for telecommuting; more than 75 percent of respondents wanted to work remotely occasionally, while 54 percent wanted telecommuting as their primary work arrangement. The shift in workplace preference could have enormous implications for transit serving downtown Seattle, where Amazon’s campus is located. The online retail company recently announced that it will allow corporate workers to telecommute through September. More than half of Amazon’s Seattle workers prior to COVID-19 did not use a car to get to work and are believed to be the primary reason the city has bucked a national trend of decreased transit ridership.
Frost said this likely shift from transit use needs to be considered when it comes to thinking about ST3, a $54 billion transportation package approved by voters in 2016 consisting of bus rapid transit and light rail expansion. Even before COVID-19, future light rail lines planned as part of ST3 were experiencing a drop in transit riders.
“I think there should be a conversation about whether that expansion…is a useful way to spend an enormous amount of public dollars with existing safety concerns,” Frost said. “Agencies should right-size their services to existing ridership.”
She added that telecommuting might be part of the long-term solution to traffic congestion in the region, where the population is expected to increase from 4.2 million to 5 million by 2040.
Frost said greater adoption of telecommuting should also involve a change in public policies that currently “artificially restrict people to live near employment centers. If you can telecommute, you can live wherever you want.”
The next JTC meeting is scheduled for June 23. The Washington Policy Center hosts a webinar each .