Getting people back to mass transit after COVID-19 – and a deck stacked against mass transit

Mass transit agencies across the United States are trying different strategies to try to get people back after COVID-19:

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Agencies in Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New Orleans are offering reduced fares or free rides, temporarily, to lure people back onto transit. Others are considering abolishing fares altogether. Los Angeles is exploring a 23-month pilot that would give students and low-income residents free rides. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority scrapped fares in March 2020 and doesn’t plan to bring them back. “The return on investment for empathy, compassion, for social equity, far outweighs the return on investment for concrete and asphalt,” Robbie Makinen, the agency’s CEO, told Stateline last week.

Others are taking aim at an even more sacred cow: rush hour service…

Agencies are using the murky period of pandemic recovery to usher in schedule changes. In Los Angeles, officials for Metra, the local commuter rail, said this month they would test new schedules that “step away” from the pre-pandemic, rush hour norm, “in favor of a more balanced approach” that spaces trains more evenly throughout the day. In Boston, officials in April went ahead with pre-pandemic plans and began running more frequent commuter trains outside the schedules of the 9-to-5ers. It’s part of a bigger vision to transform the system into a more equitable regional rail network that serves more than the traditional office worker. Off-peak riders are more likely to be immigrants, women, people of color, and lower income. The pandemic, as the local advocacy group TransitMatters has observed, may have given the local agency the “political space” to make long-planned changes. There are fewer people now to complain that operators took away their specific train.

Just as the aftermath of COVID-19 offers an opportunity to think about housing, here is an opportunity to reconsider mass transit strategies. Why keep doing things the same old ways when the world has changed? If different cities and regions experiment with different tractics, they might find a few that work and that can be widely adopted.

At the same time, mass transit does not just face COVID-19 fallout. If given the choice, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit. If needing to travel, they would prefer to drive unless this is really inconvenient. Driving offers more individual freedom to come and go and offers completely personal space (outside of seeing other drivers and passengers in nearby vehicles). American governments have spent a lot of money in the last century paying for roads and driving infrastructure while investments in mass transit have lagged or mass transit is often tied to driving (an emphasis on buses).

Additionally, if a post-COVID-19 world means that working from home is more of an option, more people simply will not need mass transit and/or will enjoy not having to use it. Mass transit could still be useful for going out but if it is not needed for work for as many people, this will mean losing a lot of regular riders.

More broadly, this gets at bigger questions in the United States about development, density, transportation, and thriving communities. An ongoing commitment to cars has consequences as would a shift toward a different kind of mass transit or constructing more dense places where mass transit makes more sense. If the best that can be done now is to prioritize transit-oriented development in denser pockets in urban areas, it will take a long time to swing trips toward mass transit compared to driving.

Rituals to mimic the valuable aspects of a commute (without the actual travel time)

COVID-19 has disrupted the work patterns of many and this included the commute to and from work. Even as some relished the opportunity to work from home and avoid the time and hassle of a commute, the pattern could offer some advantages. Enter in alternative rituals to mark the beginning and end of a work day:

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I sought the advice of Ezra Bookman, a corporate-ritual designer (yes, this is a real job) based in Brooklyn. His work includes coming up with ideas like “funerals” for failed projects. “Every single conversation I have with corporate clients is the same,” he told me: “Employees are burnt out and have no separation between home and life.”

Naturally, he has come up with some rituals to replace the commute and mark the beginning and end of each day. The ideas he’s proposed to clients include lighting variations, warm-up stretches, cellphone-free walks, and, as he demonstrated to me over Zoom, shrouding your computer in a fine blue cloth when you log off, as if it, too, needs a good night’s sleep.

“Rituals are friction,” he told me. Like the commute, “they slow us down. They’re so antithetical to most of our life, which is all about efficiency and speed.” One ritual that worked for Bookman was changing his laptop password to “DeepBreath”: “It helps me to locate myself in time and say, ‘Okay, what am I here to do?’ ”

Iqbal, the Microsoft researcher, said that this was the same idea behind a “virtual commute” that her company has just released. An onscreen tap on the shoulder—“Ready to leave for the day?”—signals that it’s time to knock off. The shutdown sequence has you bookmark what you were working on. It invites you to “take a minute to breathe and reset,” in sync, if you like, with a calming meditation video. Because work is done.

The stark physical distance in the modern world between work and home is one that is relatively unusual in human history. In communities prior to the 1800s, many workers lived and worked in close proximity, often on the same property or land. The availability of new transportation options plus burgeoning populations and industries separated the two such that the physical distance between home and work increased.

These rituals hint at these physical distances while emphasizing the broader dimensions of not living and working in the same place. Humans fall into and often enjoy routines/rituals. Even if they are stressful – and commuting can be both in the moment and long-term – they can become needed.

At the same time, how exactly does replacing one ritual with another work? Here the issue is work and home life, trying to recreate patterns that allow for decompression and shifting focus. Yet, the new ritual is quite different: it does not involve the body in the same way – less motion, more emphasis on breathing – and happens at a different speed – commuting involves the possibility of higher speeds via car, train, and other means.

Does this always work? I am thinking of T. M. Luhrmann’s book on religious kindling which involves a lot of discussion of rituals. Replace a religious ritual with an action that tries to invoke something similar – say mindfulness – and does it replace the previous ritual or is it deficient or even better? How much time does it take to adjust from one important rituals or set of rituals to another?

Add technology to this mix – which could help pattern and establish new rituals as well disrupt old patterns such as making work possible at all hours and in all places – and lots of rituals may need reinforcing or replacing.

Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

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The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

Driving less in the suburbs, a space devoted to driving

Nearing the ninth month of COVID-19 restrictions in our area, I remembered again this weekend that I have done one regular activity a lot less than normal in that time: driving. While this may be true for many Americans, this is particularly unusual in the suburbs. When a whole space where more than 50% of Americans live is organized around cars, driving significantly less makes for noticeable change.

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Americans like suburbs, in part, because they are organized around cars and driving. Single-family homes often features garages and driveways. Private lots are often located beyond walking distance of key destinations including schools, grocery stores, parks, and jobs. Commuting by car is required in the absence of other transportation options and the suburb-to-suburb trip is common.

To start, making fewer car trips during COVID-19 means I have more time in life. I do not have a long commute but with an average commute time of just under twenty-seven minutes, less driving and/or working from home means many suburbanites have more time during the week. Those who have had to continue to drive to work regularly encounter less traffic on the road and can arrive more quickly. And I have driven less to other locations as well. (Of course, others might have driven more during COVID-19, particularly delivery drivers of all sorts.)

Second, I have had to do less maintenance on my car and pay for less gas. Cars are expensive to own and maintain. It is not only about the frequency of trips; we have put off longer trips to visit family or take vacations. Suburbanites may be used to driving trips to the city or vacation spots but tourist activity is down during COVID-19. The time between oil changes and regular maintenance has increased, likely lengthening the life of our vehicles. (At the same time, COVID-19 might make owning a car more necessary when public transportation is not as attractive.)

Third, with less driving and more time at home, I have been more free to walk and bike locally. While I tend to do these things already, it is a more attractive option for many in order to get out of the house and get some fresh air. This can help suburbanites pay more attention to what is going on around them rather than just retreat to their private spaces. Similarly, streets can be more about people than just cars and trucks.

Finally, driving less means more suburbanites are spending more time at home. The private single-family home in suburbia may look more attractive during COVID-19 as it often offers space and distance from others. Particularly in wealthier suburbs, residents can work from home, have plenty of entertainment and leisure options, and have things delivered to them.

While COVID-19 has affected driving and time use in suburbs, it is less clear how attractive this is to suburbanites. Americans in general like to combine driving and homes but during COVID-19 they may have seen more of their homes and less of the road. Since driving is connected to many social and economic activities in suburbs, this is not just about accessing opportunities; it is about living out a particular style of life. Will suburban COVID-19 experiences help push residents and leaders toward a new kind of suburbs or will people be overjoyed to return to typical driving patterns?

Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs

A financial adviser warns people moving from the city to the suburbs about several costs they might not consider:

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A larger house equals larger monthly bills…

More space requires more furniture…

You may need a car…

It’s more expensive to commute to work.

A few thoughts on each of these:

  1. The larger monthly bills could vary quite a bit across suburban homes depending on the size of the home, the costs in each municipality, and whether the home is updated (think insulation, efficient appliances, etc.). Best to check on these costs in each possible residence.
  2. There are multiple ways to get cheaper furniture to reduce costs. Not all rooms have to be fully furnished (perhaps less entertaining during COVID-19 helps with this). Rather than focusing on furniture, why not buy a smaller house? Wait, Americans need somewhere to put all their stuff (including furtniture)…
  3. Yes, most suburban living will require a car unless living within walking distance of needs and work or living in an inner-ring suburb with great public transportation. Cars are not cheap once you add up car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance. And cars need parking and storage space with many desiring a garage on their property for that, adding to property costs. But, Americans like their driving in the suburbs.
  4. Commuting can be financially costly as well as stressful. The time might not be as much of an issue (though certain routes in certain locations certainly add up) as the inability to do much else while driving.

Thinking more broadly about suburban costs, I wonder if presenting potential suburban residents the full array of problems with suburbs – financial costs, exclusion, limited cultural amenities, moral minimalism – would change people’s minds. The suburbs have a certain appeal in American life and the suburban single-family home is a strong draw to many.

Calculating the costs of commuting versus benefits of living further from work

INRIX recently published data on traffic and congestion in major American cities with Boston leading the way. Here is one of the data tables:

INRIXcongestion2020

When put in these terms, it looks like commuters lose a lot of hours and money by sitting in traffic. In addition to the time it should take to commute by car, drivers in Boston lose over 6 days to congestion and over $2,000 dollars. The cost for the city/region is huge when all the drivers are added together. In New York City, $11 billion lost!

On the other hand, people keep commuting. Why would they do this in light of these costs? The pull of the suburbs and locations away from their work is strong. Perhaps workers should be able to live near their work but a good number choose or are pushed to locations far from their jobs. And they might be willing to put up with these costs because the places where they live offer other good things (and measurable benefits). In American life, suburbs offer single-family homes, places for family life, and more. Losing 100+ hours in traffic each year in the biggest cities could be tolerable if it comes with a bigger, cheaper home in a well-regarded community.

In an ideal world, workplaces and communities that people want to live in and would thrive in would be located near each other. Sometimes they are but often they are not. In a country where Americans and their government have prioritized certain things – driving over mass transit throughout metropolitan regions, for example – even the hassles of commuting make some sense.

Three larger issues underlying mass transit problems in the Chicago suburbs

Suburbs in the Chicago region are looking for ways to help workers make the “last mile” connection between existing transit and their workplaces but there are few easy solutions:

Transit advocates and local officials are looking at ways to fill the “first mile/last mile” gap, which could include shuttle buses, bikes, scooters, better sidewalks, ride-share vehicles and, eventually, autonomous or self-driving vehicles…

Suburbs with manufacturing and warehouse businesses offer examples of the last-mile problem. Bedford Park has just 600 residents, but 400 businesses and about 30,000 jobs at big companies like Cintas, FedEx, Home Chef and CSX. Located near Midway International Airport, the village has for years promoted itself as business-friendly, and has seen jobs grow…

The last-mile problem goes beyond Bedford Park and into other other suburbs with light manufacturing like Addison, where it’s difficult for workers to connect with Metra because of varying shifts, Wennink said. It also affects white-collar work zones, like the office complexes of Naperville and Warrenville, Wennink said.

A longer-term solution to the job/worker disconnect is to have more jobs located in transit-oriented development areas, Wennink said. But in the meantime, businesses, employers and towns are trying a patchwork of fixes.

These commuting issues connect to three broader issues that, if addressed, could help address the last mile problem:

1. As noted, the Chicago region operates on a hub-and-spoke model where train lines and other transit options tend to radiate out of downtown but then there is little connecting the spokes. As one example, efforts to create a rail line that would connect some of the existing rail lines and job centers did not get very far.

2. Individual suburbs will find it difficult to address these issues on their own without more regional or metropolitan-wide support (and resources). These are collective problems but the preference for local governments in the suburbs plus limited organizational capability or power in the Chicago region means the efforts will likely remain just a patchwork.

3. While this might look like a transit problem, it could also be a housing issue. If people do not or cannot easily live near where they work, then transit is needed. The deeper underlying issue, however, might be residential patterns regularly organized by race/ethnicity and class that makes it difficult for many of the workers described in the article to be close to their place of employment. The social science term for this is spatial mismatch.

Living close to work

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted earlier this week about the ability of workers to live near their place of work:

https://twitter.com/BetoORourke/status/1171238016289034240

There is a lot to think about here. A little historical context: most workers lived very close to work up until the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization that came with it. The separation of home and work life is a relatively recent phenomenon for humans.

A little data on commute times. The 2017 American Community Survey showed the average commute time was 26.9 minutes. Commuting time can differ quite a bit across metropolitan regions:

McKenzie says the East Stroudsburg, Pa. metro area has among the longest average one-way travel time, clocking in at about 37.9 minutes. The U.S. Census Bureau contacted NPR with new information to include the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area, which has a travel time of 37 minutes. Travel times for the two metro areas are not statistically different from one another.

Among the shortest average travel times, usually less than 20 minutes, were in Cheyenne, Wyo. and Grand Forks, N.D.

There is an academic term that addresses this issue: spatial mismatch. In this theory, jobs available to lower-income workers are located far from their residences. Imagine a typical well-off suburb: can the workers at the local Target or McDonald’s or gas station or hotel live in that community or nearby? Patterns of residential segregation and exclusionary zoning can mean that cheaper or affordable housing is not available close to certain jobs. This can be a more hidden form of inequality as longer trips to work mean less time for other activities.

This might get trickier for people with more resources and the options of where they want to live. A common American trade-off for the middle-class gets at this: should a homeowner move further out from work to purchase a larger home or live closer to work and job centers (which can include urban downtowns as well as suburban job centers dozens of miles away from urban downtowns)? Is a shorter commute worth having if it comes with paying more money for (possibly smaller) housing?

And perhaps the wealthy can truly live the closest to work if they so choose. Some of them might even locate their business or firm to where they are. Others might have multiple homes, including ones significant distances away where they can get to work by means not available to many such a private jets and helicopters.

So perhaps the issue here is not really living close to work but deeper issues involving mixed-income neighborhoods and moving away from resources (income and wealth) determining where people can life. O’Rourke gets into this a bit more, calling for smarter and denser cities that he says will lead to numerous positive outcomes – which could include shorter commutes.

A test of taking Lyft from the train to the suburban office park exposes mass transit issues in the suburbs

One company in the Chicago suburbs is running a test to encourage employees to take the train to get close to their office and then use Lyft to complete the trip:

The two-year program aims to solve the “last mile” problem — how to bridge the gap between the train station or bus stop and the rider’s final destination. This problem is especially nettlesome for reverse commuters, who live in the city but work in the suburbs at jobs that are sometimes far from transit stops. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the RTA…

GlenStar Properties is paying 75 percent of the cost of transporting employees at its Bannockburn complex on Waukegan Road to and from Metra stops in Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest. The Regional Transportation Authority is picking up the rest of the cost, up to $30,000 during the pilot…

The program, which launched in March and is the first of its type in Illinois, is starting small with just a few trips a day, according to the RTA. Bannockburn Lakes tenants get a monthly Lyft pass for the rides.

Many suburban companies, including Walgreens and Allstate, have some kind of shuttle bus program to get workers to and from Metra stations, said Michael Walczak, executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Lake-Cook, a nonprofit that works with companies and the private sector to figure out transit issues.

This is an interesting way to solve a common problem in both cities and suburbs: how to get people and goods that last step (or “last mile”) between a mass transit stop and their destination. Even in cities with good mass transit, the last step can cause a lot of problems.

This strikes me as the pragmatic solution to the larger problem of limited mass transit in the suburbs. The Chicago train system runs on the hub and spokes model where suburban communities, typically their downtowns, are connected to the Loop. This system may help funnel people into the center of Chicago but it is both difficult to get around the region and the train lines run into historic town centers, not necessarily the work and residential centers of today. Ride-sharing can help make up the difference by connecting train stops to workplaces. This can limit long-distance solo trips by car and allow more workers to not have a vehicle or to drive significantly less.

On the other hand, this solution could be viewed as less-than-ideal reaction to the real issue: sprawling suburban sites do not lend themselves to mass transit and the ride-sharing solution is just a band-aid to a much bigger issue. Chicago area suburbs have tried versions of this for decades including public bus systems in the suburbs to connect office parks to train stations, buses from remote parking lots to train stations, and private companies operating shuttle buses (as noted above). This all may work just for a limited number of workers who are located near rail lines and who are willing to use mass transit. But, most suburban workers – and they tend to work in other suburbs – have no chance of using timely and convenient mass transit to get to work. The densities just do not support this (and the office park in the story illustrates that this may be more feasible with denser concentrations of workers).

If companies, communities, and regional actors truly wanted to address these issues in the Chicago region, a more comprehensive plan is needed to nudge people closer together to both take advantage of existing mass transit and develop new options.

My 2.4 mile drive to work includes 6 stop signs, 2 traffic lights, and 1 train crossing

In my daily drive (or bicycle ride) to work through mostly residential neighborhoods, I encounter multiple intersections that require stopping with six stop signs, two traffic lights, and one trip over railroad tracks. A few patterns for my suburban trip and including these stops:

-The majority of the stops occur along an important north-south road in the community that is one lane each way, goes past houses of various kinds, and has a speed limit of 30 mph. Both traffic lights involve this road with only one light involving a four lane road.

-My average speed is roughly 12.5 mph. If I could go the 30 mph allowed on most of the trip and there were no stops, my trip should be more like 5 minutes long.

-Most of the stops are pretty short except for two kinds. The traffic lights can cause a wait of up to a minute and a half and the busier one can be longer if I have to wait through multiple lights. The train crossing obviously can wreak havoc with a typical trip with a stop for the train and then heavier traffic afterward as a long line goes down the road. Most of the time, I do not encounter a train and I now have a decent sense of when the passenger trains come during the morning and evening rush hours.

The average American one-way commute is now 26.9 minutes so my commute is much shorter than many. But, that time factor can obscure distances – a 20 minute commute in a more rural area is going to cover more distance than my 12 minute drive in a residential suburb and a 35 minute commute in a major city might be a different distance.

One promise I have read about involving self-driving cars is that they will be much less impeded by intersections. Because vehicles will be able to communicate with each other, stopping at a stop light for 1+ minutes or a required stop at a stop sign in light or no traffic could be limited. Removing all that stopping and starting would also be good for the environment because of reduced idling.

I assume all of the stops are there due to safety concerns and trying to keep traffic flowing in all directions (based on traffic counts, accident reports, and road and planning guidelines). But, it would be great to see in the next few decades changes to how many stops and starts vehicles must make.