A little more remote work could change rush hour a lot

By Emily Badger, The New York Times, June 11, 2021

“Traffic has begun to return as the economy has revived. But planners, transit agencies, and researchers are now considering the remarkable possibility that in many places it won’t revert to its old shape amid newfound work flexibility.

“[N]ational surveys [conducted over the past year by researchers at Arizona State and the University of Illinois at Chicago found] that the share of workers who expect to telecommute at least a few times each week is double what it was prepandemic. That’s a large increase in telecommuting … without a large increase in people doing it full time.

“Overall, we’d be talking on a given day about a decline of a few percentage points in peak commuting trips — a small number, but a big deal during the most painful parts of the day.

“[R]oadway congestion is nonlinear … Approaching a tipping point, a few more cars can strangle a highway. Similarly, removing a small share can unclog congestion.

“Rush hour is the principal obsession of transportation planning in America. We widen highways to accommodate it, and measure whether those highways are worth their vast expense by the minutes and seconds saved in peak travel time.

“Systems designed for peak travel are really designed for the more affluent, said Charles T. Brown, the C.E.O. of Equitable Cities, a planning and research firm.

“But the full promise of less spiky travel is that it could help [both telecommuters and shift workers, such as janitors or nursing aides]. That would happen if transit agencies were more focused on all-day service, or if infrastructure dollars weren’t heavily spent on highways that pollute poorer neighborhoods so rush-hour commuters can pass through.

“ ‘We should not design a system around the most privileged of our populations,’ said Mr. Brown … ‘If we are truly about servicing demand, Covid-19 showed who demanded it most.’

“Early in the pandemic in San Francisco, transit officials scrapped service on many lines to focus on where essential workers travel.

“ ‘Inside almost every transit agency … there’s this inevitable conflict between the suburban commuter interest who’s trying to get out of congestion, who’s very focused on the problem of peak congestion, and then there’s the interest of people trying to get around all day,’ said Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant …

“Less congested city streets could mean faster bus travel, more space for cyclists, and more humane commutes for the people who still drive.”

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