The pandemic has created tectonic shifts in our lives and how we move around the city and it might be time to adjust our regional transportation policies to reflect these changes.
“Collectively, there’s a lot of little setbacks at a time when we thought our region was going to be making significant strides forward in providing more transportation options for people.”
— Eliot Rose, Metro
That’s just one of several important findings from a report by Metro to better understand the impact of recent shifts in regional mobility behaviors.
To prepare for the 2023 update of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), Metro hired a consultant to work with their transportation planners to better understand emerging trends.
The initial findings from the Emerging Transportation Trends Study were shared at the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) meeting last week.
Here’s a summary of the trends (emphases mine), taken from a February 17th memo (PDF) to JPACT members from Metro Senior Transportation Planner Eliot Rose and Fehr & Peers Senior Transportation Planner Briana Calhoun:
• Transit ridership will take several years longer than automobile traffic to return to pre- pandemic levels due to service cuts, changing travel patterns, and lingering health concerns.
• People of color will feel less safe traveling in public than before because of increased concerns about racist policing and pandemic-era anti-Asian racism.
• A significant share of workers will continue teleworking after the pandemic is over.
• Electric vehicles and e-bikes will be increasingly affordable, have longer ranges, and be easier to use.
• People will buy an increasing share of goods online.
• The boom in recreational bicycling during the pandemic could create an opportunity to further increase bicycle trips.
• Agencies will face the challenges of pandemic recovery (as well as other unanticipated changes) with limited resources and outdated processes.
• The increase in traffic deaths seen during the pandemic will continue into recovery.
And here are a few more slides from the meeting:
The report makes two broad observations that should be a red flag to policymakers and advocates: “Emerging trends stand to reverse progress toward on the region’s climate, equity and safety goals” and “Emerging trends are pushing our region toward a two-tiered transportation system.”
The report says even if the decline in transit ridership doesn’t show a significant impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) – if this trend continues, by 2025 it will have increased regional VMT by 0-2%. In order to meet the regional climate goals necessary for curbing the worst effects of climate change, people need to be riding transit far more than they did even before the pandemic, so this decline in ridership is a move in the wrong direction.
Another issue with public transit relates to what the report cites as “the increase in public incidents of racism, the dangers of walking to and waiting at a transit stop, reduced service, and increased public health concerns,” all of which have made it feel less safe and more inconvenient — especially to people who are Black or Asian or in other communities of color. “Transit cannot provide a truly equitable and sustainable alternative to driving until these issues are addressed,” reads the memo.
One of the bright spots was a boom in what the report calls “recreational cycling”. (Note: We put that in quotes because we don’t think it’s good practice to separate bicycle trip types. After all, planners and policymakers never do that for car and truck trips.)
As we reported in 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation and Metro use datasets provided by Strava to analyze cycling trends. Briana Calhoun, the consultant with Fehr & Peers, said at JPACT last week that, “It’s not a perfect source of data, but it does provide us some information.” They found a strong uptick in bike trips logged via Strava from 2019 to 2020 for the entire metro region. “There may be multiple reasons why those long trips increased in 2020,” Calhoun said at the meeting. “But we do know that people were less comfortable using shared modes like transit and looked at other modes of travel to get around during that time.”
In response to these findings, Metro acknowledges a need to shift policies and practices. There are new categories of focus to pay attention to that were not so present before the pandemic. For instance, people work from home at far greater numbers now, and that may remain true in a post-pandemic future. Increased online shopping has also put a spotlight on the impact of delivery vehicles, which will be a new focus in the RTP update.
Metro Planner Eliot Rose told JPACT members on Thursday that a much broader shift in transportation planning might be necessary:
“We were really focused on commute trips, but people are taking a lot more other trips throughout the day now. We used to focus on how to get people to the store. And now we have an opportunity to focus on how goods from the store move to people. We thought about connecting people to jobs with transit passes and infrastructure and now maybe in this environment, having a computer and internet access as a more effective and advantageous way for people to be able to get ahead in our region’s economy… And lastly, understanding what’s going on with with peak travel which has been driving a lot of our transportation investment decisions… people are making fewer trips during the peak… The last data from ODOT for our region shows that highway trips are still down by three to 5% from pre-pandemic levels, there may be some opportunities in there to think about to think about our priorities for investment as we enter into the RTP.”
“None of these trends represent a major threat to our region’s goals in and of themselves,” Rose continued. “It’s more that collectively, there’s a lot of little setbacks at a time when we thought our region was going to be making significant strides forward in providing more transportation options for people. And that’s been a challenge.”
To help Metro better understand these trends, you can participate in the RTP update planning process by sharing your experiences in a survey which will be open for participation until April 3rd at 5:00 pm.