With stay-at-home orders in place across the country, travel patterns and overall demand for travel are clearly down substantially during the pandemic. A simple look at the roads, rails, and skies indicates the overall lack of travel taking place. What is less certain, however, are the precise reasons behind the drop in travel, and therefore what we can expect as stay-at-home orders are rolled back. For example, how much of this change in travel demand has to do with non-essential workers able to work from home, as opposed to reduced travel from workers being furloughed, laid off, or taking time to care for children? How many trips are simply being deferred (e.g., a trip to visit a family member or to purchase a non-essential item) versus canceled altogether? The reasons for the change in travel pattern and the degree to which they persist after the pandemic passes will have lasting implications across the transportation sector. Everything from transportation safety outcomes, to funding, to the need for additional road/transit capacity could be affected in the months and years to come.
With this background in mind, we have been listening to some of the key questions being asked by our clients and partners across the country during the COVID-19 response. We are taking action to accelerate new practices and innovations that were already in our 2020 Research & Development (R&D) agenda, and identifying the best new ways to effectively account for travel demand not only in these difficult times, but also with an eye toward advancing our industry’s best practices into the future.
What We’re Hearing
- Change Agents – How much travel is avoided due to technological efficiencies (such as improved telecommuting), and how much is due to anxiety, health concerns, job losses, and other effects of the pandemic and associated economic slowdown?
- Persistent Patterns – As stay-at-home orders are lifted, how quickly will some travel bounce back? Will some patterns, such as telecommuting and remote meetings, persist long into the future and become part of a new background condition?
- Curve Flattening – The suppression of travel related to the pandemic has demonstrated how dramatically people can change travel patterns and reduce traffic congestion. What enduring lessons can be learned from and applied to transportation demand management (TDM) programs?
- Crowded Curbs and Pinched Parking – Will people embrace the convenience of curbside delivery after stores and restaurants reopen, and how can communities manage demands for more curb space and potentially less parking in an era where transit ridership might be lower due to concerns about crowded public spaces?
- Commuter Congestion – In the event that commuters shy away from public transit, carpools, and other shared transportation modes, what commuter-oriented transportation demand management (TDM) strategies should be considered first to address congestion or a lack of parking on the city, campus, or employer scale?
- Fundamental Facts – While we are certainly seeing changes in travel patterns that will have to be addressed in future planning and engineering studies, there are several fundamental issues that are still a priority and will remain as such even as the pandemic fades. These notably include reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation and reliable and resilient freight networks.
How We’re Responding
We are accelerating actions that were already on our R&D action plan and adapting them to the current situation:
- Enhancing our Modeling Tools – We are working to refine and improve some of our existing modeling tools – both traditional travel demand forecasting models and our rapid scenario planning models – to be more sensitive and accurate in answering questions related to temporary and persistent changes in travel patterns. Some of the tools ready for deployment will be described in a subsequent blog post, along with some preliminary modeling results.
- Expanding Online Retail Travel Impacts – For deeper understanding, we are diving into literature review and data analysis on how expanded online retail and delivery is impacting consumer travel patterns and last mile freight delivery.
- Defining “Existing Conditions” and Data Collection – In an era of rapidly changing travel patterns, defining “baseline” or “existing conditions” warrants discussions based on the context of the analysis. We are developing talking points and key considerations for our clients to help define these conditions for environmental review and other transportation studies. Additionally, we are working with Big Data vendors to identify innovative ways to gather data on “typical conditions” for vehicle and multimodal flows.
In addition to the accelerated items above, we have other actions on our R&D agenda targeted for later in the year:
- TDM Research Updates – Our literature library is being updated, and we are enhancing our TDM+ tool to incorporate the latest research and new data from stay-at-home travel responses.
- VMT Tool and Mitigation Development – Research continues on VMT analysis techniques and the efficacy of VMT mitigation, particularly as we learn more about travel responses to more stringent TDM measures. We will also be updating our VMT analysis tools and mitigation strategies.
- Quick-Response Scenario Planning Tools – We plan to expand the capabilities of our scenario-testing tools to consider longer-term travel pattern changes noticeably persisting after stay-at-home orders are lifted.
- Measurement and Tracking of Key Travel Pattern Shifts – Working with our partners in the public and private sector, including transit agencies, public works departments, departments of transportation, and big data vendors, we will be actively monitoring the major travel pattern trends we have seen change in response to COVID-19, including telecommuting, reduced business travel, less transit travel, increased online shopping, and increased walking/biking (in some areas).
What We’re Seeking
Tell us about the needs and challenges facing your community, and let’s work toward solutions. Our investments in innovation are most useful when they address shared difficulties and obstacles across diverse regions and communities. Partner with us now to influence the direction of our travel trends and demand management research and collaborate with us in the work. Contact our leaders in this topic – Ron Milam, Mike Wallace, or Teresa Whinery – to discuss your challenges, needs, and ideas with us. Together, we can meet this unique moment with the resolve that is needed to emerge stronger.