COVID Killed the Morning Rush — But Spread Pain All Day

Report finds national trend is especially pronounced in NYC — with implications for 'Carmageddon.'

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Meet the new rush hour. Worse than the old rush hour.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t reduced car driving in cities — but rather merely spread it out during the day, a new report shows.

And that has important consequences for New York City’s recovery from the pandemic, underscoring the need to adopt measures to mitigate what street-safety activists call “Carmageddon” — the wholesale return of traffic to the urban core with its attendant vehicle violence, air pollution and congestion.

San Francisco-based research firm StreetLight Data looked at traffic patterns in five major metropolitan areas and found that, by August, vehicle miles traveled in each city had rebounded to previous highs. What’s changed is that the morning rush hour — when car travel typically peaked before falling and then building again at about 3 p.m. when schools let out — has been almost eliminated in favor of a spread-out, much-more-intense rush hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Each of the five metro areas the firm examined — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — saw similar morning fall-offs and midday rises in Vehicle Miles Traveled. New York’s morning rush-hour VMT drop was the most extreme of the five, about a full percentage point, from slightly more than 6 percent to slightly more than 5 percent, at the peak hour of 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. (That’s a lot of cars.)

The share of traffic in New York during the midday hours did not rise as much as it did in the other cities surveyed, however — reflecting the fact that Central Business District workers have not returned to Midtown offices as strongly as workers have in other cities, even though driving in our outer boroughs, especially among essential workers, has continued apace. The fact that Manhattan has seen less traffic, relatively, gave Mayor de Blasio a reprieve for building infrastructure that could forestall the return of car-induced misery and carnage to the borough — but he has squandered much of that opportunity, some advocates say.

“While others in his position in cities around the world saw the pandemic as an obligation to make sweeping changes and usher in a new normal, Mayor de Blasio tinkered around the periphery and resigned to the idea that the honking, polluted old normal was the best he could do,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joseph Cutrufo.  

The report attributed the new driving patterns to the rise of remote work during the pandemic, quoting a survey that counted 77 percent of office employees working from home and 55 percent likely to continue doing so after COVID. It also follows a 

Source: Streetlight Data
Source: StreetLight Data

“Millions of commuters no longer head to a distant office in the morning, and they have new flexibility for mid-day grocery shopping and other in-person errands as more businesses gradually reopen their doors,” the report said. 

That potentially has big implications for street safety.

In particular, if more car drivers are on roads during daylight hours, when more pedestrians and cyclists are also on streets, cities could see a jump in deaths and injuries from crashes — and, in fact, the rate of deaths and injuries already has jumped in 2020, statistics show.

The vice president of marketing at StreetLight Data, Martin Morzynski, said he was “not sure” the firm’s data supports the idea that we will see more injuries and fatalities, but he did point to data showing that American cities are seeing a cycling boom: nationwide, a 12-percent year-over-year gain in biking, on average.

Increased bike ridership in many cities — and new knowledge about major origin and destination hubs for bikers in these cities — is already informing the creation of bike-dedicated infrastructure aimed at ensuring safety,” Morzynski said. 

The spread out of VMTs during the day also throws a big wrench into the models of transportation planners, underscoring the need for more data and better strategies to deal with the new urban traffic realities — just as municipalities find their budgets sapped by the pandemic. But cities could find some dollars in their highway budgets, Morzynski suggested.

“Because total vehicle miles traveled are … less concentrated during the a.m.and p.m. rush hours, localities with uncertain budgets need lower-cost, faster sources of data to monitor where and how their populations are moving to deploy resources and infrastructure that meets the evolving demand for transportation,” Morzynski said. “This could mean shifting dollars from highway lanes to bike lanes or delivery drop-off zones, as well as revised scheduling of transit, safer loading, adherence to COVID health guidelines, and so on.”

The drop-off in a.m. rush hour congestion will likely persist after COVID, he added, thanks to new habits that have been formed, together with sustained gains in e-commerce delivery, sustained work-from-home employer policy and the like — hence the need for thoroughgoing post-recovery plans.

New York has been slow on the uptake in that regard.

In a move much rued by local experts, de Blasio has declined to formulate a formal post-COVID surface-transportation recovery plan, which can feature the measures Morzynski mentioned, along with congestion pricing, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, dedicated bus lanes and busways, and support for transit. And Hizzoner also cut the transportation budget — and gutted a signature street-safety program.

The mayor countered through a spokesman that he has undertaken some of those measures, including installing more bike and bus lanes — and, of course, supports transit.

New York has a congestion-pricing plan, which was adopted last year and was supposed to start in January, but it was halted by President Trump for no apparent reason.