Rush hour traffic in New York City, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas has almost reached pre-pandemic congestion levels by the end of 2021. The congestion level in these cities were only 1–2% lower than they were in 2019, when the average motorist in the U.S. drove 14,263 miles per year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Now that the pandemic is subsiding and travel is resuming, will traffic rebound to "Carmageddon" levels?
It is clear by now that the challenge of traffic congestion remains even in the post-pandemic world. Transportation planning is all about maximizing travel while minimizing negative externalities, of which congestion is prime.
Since World War II, the vast majority of surface transportation planning and land use policy decisions across the U.S. have been made primarily with private auto travel in mind, resulting in physical space within cities being converted into highways and parking infrastructure. There has been a cyclical effect, whereby auto-dependence has led to auto-centric land-use planning decisions that have, in turn, resulted in low-density suburban sprawl. The low-density nature of cities has led to further dependence on cars. In most of the U.S., public transportation is largely ineffective, meaning personal vehicles are the only viable option for most people to work, shop, and survive.
In some U.S. cities, ride-hail services account for up to 14% of total vehicle miles travelled (VMT). While the use of such services could lead to decreased personal motor vehicle usage, it is important that these vehicles be utilized efficiently, by minimizing “deadheading” — driving around without passengers. Also, a low percentage of these rides are actually shared with other passengers, especially since the pandemic, and great potential exists as a congestion mitigation measure if this dynamic were to change.
The proliferation of e-commerce is also a cause for concern. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum found that growing demand for delivery could spike congestion by more than 30% in the world’s top 100 cities by the end of the decade. The pandemic, in effect, hit overdrive on a decades-long shift toward online shopping.
Two years into the pandemic, evidence is emerging that travel behavior post-pandemic might be different from pre-pandemic travel. Public transit ridership, which declined steeply during the pandemic, will return, but not to pre-pandemic levels. As of late October 2021, national transit ridership was only about 62% of what it was pre-pandemic.
The data implies a mode shift from public transit to driving by car. New car registrations in the U.S. reached a 10-year high of 1.64 million in March 2021, which is significant. It should also be noted that reductions in commuting due to working from home do not offset mode shift from public transit to car driving, resulting in a net increase in car use after the pandemic.
The solution for these congestion problems includes a mixed strategy of road pricing, multi-modal transportation, and policies that encourages optimum utilization, equity, and accessibility. While every locality is different, a combination of guiding principles and congestion mitigation tools can be used to offset the impacts of increased traffic, while also solving other mobility problems.
The use of road pricing should be mindful to provide incentives for sustainability and equity goals (such as exempting shared rides from congestion pricing, or reducing fees for shared rides), and also have a meaningful policy-directed lockbox or designated revenue stream to use all or a portion of such funds to meet such goals (such as grants for EV purchases, financing first and last mile partnerships, and inter-modal connections to the for-hire ground transportation industry). Exemptions should be provided for low-income and disabled individuals.
Regulators and transportation policymakers should implement incentives and disincentives to encourage multi-modal mobility provided by taxis and e-hailing, micro-transit, micro-mobility, and public transit public-private partnerships, with on-demand first and last mile providers. Also, wherever possible, policymakers should use public-private partnerships and the use of technology platforms to promote Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) as an end goal. The MaaS solution must be carefully planned and based on actual customer need, but would leverage the public and private transportation network or ecosystem to provide alternatives to personal motor vehicle usage.
Mobility policymakers should also introduce measures that increase vehicle efficiency and maximize pooled rides through incentives that may include preferred pick-up areas or stands, as well as reduced fares, fees, and taxes. The European Commission has recently adopted a guidance notice on regulating taxis and private-hire vehicles that advises against regulation leading to empty runs, including obligations for vehicles to return to a garage in between rides and geographical restrictions that prevent drivers from taking passengers on return trips from remote locations.
Transportation regulations often have significant equity impacts. To promote equity and accessibility, incentives and disincentives should be implemented for any ground transportation services that provide services to underserved or unbanked communities and people with disabilities. Public paratransit service should include wheelchair accessible taxicabs, and incentives should be provided to reduce the additional costs of these vehicles.
The trends that exacerbate traffic congestion show no signs of weakening, and most cities have not yet fully articulated the action they will take to mitigate the actual causes of congestion. The International Association of Transportation Regulators (IATR) is developing principles that would form a framework for best practices to support mobility policymaking for federal, state/provincial, and local governments to achieve efficient, affordable, sustainable, resilient, and equitable multi-modal passenger transportation, while mitigating negative impacts such as congestion in the post-pandemic world.
This project includes the development of principles and best practices in the United States, Europe, and other relevant jurisdictions. The goal of this project is to develop a “community of practice” — or regulatory “do’s and don’ts” — through collaboration by and between regulators, the regulated entities, and other stakeholders.
Draft Report Available
The IATR congestion mitigation project will culminate in the issuance of “guiding principles” following two IATR workshops, the first of which was held as part of the IATR’s December 2021 Virtual conference in December 2021. At the 2021 IATR Conference, a great deal of excitement was generated by the Global Principles for Congestion Mitigation Workshop. During this workshop, we brought together IATR regulators, academics, and other stakeholders to help develop principles that will form a framework for best practices to support multi-modal passenger transportation, as well as package/food delivery policymaking to mitigate congestion.
This workshop helped develop the scope of the issues and ideas to be addressed, including an outline of initial general principles. The issues to be tackled include private car dependence, modal shift from public transit, for-hire vehicle growth, and surging e-commerce. The proposed guiding principles include: fair road pricing; multi-modal integration; maximizing vehicle utilization; innovative street management; sustainable transportation incentives and disincentives; expansion of EV infrastructure; promotion of shared mobility, equity, accessibility; and reduction of government fleets. Lastly, the regulatory do’s and don’ts include areas such as vehicle caps, fare regulation, congestion pricing, and vehicle utilization.
The IATR already incorporated comments received and analyzed during Workshop 1, and has expanded upon these ideas, after conducting further research based on the comments from the first workshop. The IATR is now engaging regulators and other stakeholders to complete a survey and provide feedback before it holds its second “development” workshop in the coming months.
Workshop 2 will focus on gathering input from interest groups to make the guiding principles practical and actionable for policymakers. The input received will be analyzed and the final guiding principles will be presented to the IATR membership in Memphis this year, with a panel of experts and regulators, to discuss how to use and implement these principles to reverse the carpocalypse.
About the Author: Matt Daus was chairman of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission from 2001 to 2010. Today, Daus serves as president of the International Association of Transportation Regulators (IATR). Join IATR in Memphis, Tennessee Sept. 22-25 for the association’s 35th annual conference. Registration and other details will be available on the association’s site.